Health Highlights: Oct. 28, 2004

Mandatory Military Anthrax Vaccinations Ruled Illegal Missouri Joins Program to Import Drugs Glucosamine No Help for Arthritis Knee Pain: Study Ethics Panel Created for U.S. Flu Shot Supply Viagra May Ease Deadly Lung Malady New Medical Journal Offers Free Online Access

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Mandatory Military Anthrax Vaccinations Ruled Illegal

The U.S. Defense Department's mandatory anthrax vaccination program for its troops is illegal and must stop immediately, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration violated its own rules when it approved the anthrax vaccine last year, the Washington Post reported.

Sullivan said the FDA did not meet the required review standards and didn't seek the necessary public comment. He said the ban on involuntary vaccination would remain in effect until the FDA conducts a proper review of the anthrax vaccine.

The ban could also be lifted if the President says that emergency circumstances mean that the normal review process can be waived, the Post reported.

Sullivan's ruling was on a suit filed by six service members and civilians. They charged that the drug was never shown to be effective and that some troops suffered fatigue, temporary memory loss, and joint pain after being given the vaccine.

The Defense Department said it's reviewing the decision and will pause the anthrax vaccination program until the legal situation is clarified.

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Missouri Joins Program to Import Drugs

Missouri Gov. Bob Holden announced Thursday that the Show-Me State was joining Illinois and Wisconsin in a plan to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Europe.

Holden joined Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to announce Missouri's participation in the I-SaveRx drug program, according to the Associated Press. Illinois and Wisconsin co-launched the program this month to offer savings on about 100 medications of up to 50 percent off U.S. retail prices, the AP reported.

"As governors, we're all concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs, especially as it affects those on limited income," the wire service quoted Holden as saying. "It seemed to me the logical next step for Missouri to provide options for safe and affordable prescription drugs for all our citizens."

The program was launched despite the opposition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Glucosamine No Help for Arthritis Knee Pain: Study

Glucosamine offers no long-term benefit for people with arthritis knee pain, says a University of British Columbia study.

The study tracked 137 people who had been taking glucosamine for knee joint pain for about two years. During the six-month study, researchers recorded arthritis flare-up activity among the patients, the Canadian Press reported.

There was no difference between those taking glucosamine and patients taking a placebo, the study found.

"Some studies have suggested benefit and other, more recent studies have shown absolutely no benefit, similar to our study," researcher Dr. Jolanda Cibere told the CP.

"Even if people have initially perceived a benefit, I think that it's certainly prudent for patients to consider that they may not in fact benefit from taking it," Cibere said.

Glucosamine, a popular supplement, is a purified extract of shellfish.

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Ethics Panel Created for U.S. Flu Shot Supply

The life-or-death question of who should get this year's short supply of flu vaccine will be guided by a newly formed federal panel of ethicists, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

"We want to make sure that whatever we decide is equitable," CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding told The New York Times in announcing the first-ever creation of the panel to decide vaccine allocation. The group will help the agency cope with the current crisis and future epidemics, Gerberding said.

One panel member told the newspaper that the group might ultimately have to tackle issues like whether babies should have priority over the elderly, or vice versa. The elderly are more likely to die of flu than youngsters, but the ethicists must grapple with the fact that babies presumably have decades of life ahead.

Both seniors and very young children are considered at high risk for flu, as are people with chronic health problems. While the federal government has sought to limit flu vaccine to these groups, some states have complained that they don't have enough vaccine even to inoculate those at highest risk, the Times reported.

Luckily, this year's flu season appears off to a slow start, Gerberding told the nation's top flu experts on Wednesday. In the period covering Oct. 3-16, nine states and New York City reported "sporadic" flu activity, and 40 states reported none at all, according to the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Eight confirmed cases were reported nationwide.

Gerberding also said that, unlike last year, the current flu vaccine seems to be a good match to the viral strain most likely to affect Americans, the Associated Press reported. However, there is no scientific way to predict whether this flu season will be mild or severe, the CDC director cautioned.

Federal health officials have been scrambling since Oct. 5 to find additional flu vaccine, following the British government's abrupt decision to shut down a major U.S. supplier because of contamination problems.

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Viagra May Ease Deadly Lung Malady

Viagra may play a role in treating a condition that's decidedly more dangerous than impotence, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Viagra's active ingredient, sildenafil citrate, seems to be effective in treating a serious lung malady that affects mostly women. Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is characterized by extremely high pressure in the artery carrying blood to the lungs. It affects about 100,000 people in the United States and Europe, and can leave them breathless after they perform a simple household chore, the Times said.

Viagra's maker, Pfizer, said the company is negotiating use of the drug for this purpose with U.S. and European regulators. The medication's appearance probably would be changed and renamed to avoid confusion, a company spokesperson told the newspaper.

There are three drugs already approved for PAH, but two require round-the-clock administration and the third costs about $35,000 a year, the Times reported. The Pfizer drug, if sold at the same cost as Viagra, would cost about $10,000 annually, the newspaper said.

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New Medical Journal Offers Free Online Access

A new online medical journal plans to make its articles available for free over the Internet.

The Public Library of Science Medicine (PLoS Medicine), launched earlier this month, will be available to anyone with Internet access, the Associated Press reported.

The founding directors are led by Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health. Varmus said to defray the cost of subscriptions, the peer-reviewed journal will charge scientists $1,500 to publish their findings.

In October 2003, the founders started another open access journal based on the same concept -- PLoS Biology.

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