Health Highlights: Sept. 14, 2003

Air Force Academy Imposing Tightened Alcohol Rules Hopkins Surgeons Separate Conjoined Twins FDA Approves New Antibiotic for Skin Infections Drug Reduces Mother-to-Infant HIV Transmission No Such Thing as 'Hormone-Free' Milk, FDA Warns

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

Air Force Academy Imposing Tightened Alcohol Rules

The Air Force Academy is reportedly tightening up its drinking policy after its leaders found that alcohol contributed to cadet misconduct.

The new policy, which an academy spokesman refused to confirm, imposes a three-month conduct probation for alcohol violations, according to an advisory to cadets obtained by The Gazette of Colorado Springs. The policy restates existing bans on underage drinking, alcohol in dormitories and driving under the influence, but eases a rule imposed in March mandating expulsion for anyone who provides alcohol to a minor.

The Gazette reported probation could include confinement to base and submitting to a rehabilitation program, and a second violation could lead to expulsion, according to the Associated Press.

The tightened rules follow a sexual assault scandal that erupted this year after female cadets said the academy did not take their assault reports seriously. An Air Force inquiry completed in June found 40 percent of the 40 cadet-on-cadet sexual assaults investigated in the past decade involved alcohol.

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Hopkins Surgeons Separate Conjoined Twins

Surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center have successfully separated 2-month-old twin girls from Nigeria who were joined at the liver, breastbone and abdominal wall.

The two-hour operation, which took place Thursday, involved a team of 19 doctors and nurses, and the twins, Faithful and Favour Sobowale-Davies, were reported to be doing well, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The operation was much simpler and less risky than July's highly publicized attempt to separate 29-year-old Iranian sisters who were joined at the head. The women, who shared a critical blood vessel, bled to death about 50 hours into surgery, which took place in Singapore.

Doctors in the Sobowale-Davies case said they would not comment further until Tuesday, when a news briefing is planned.

Also Thursday, surgeons at Children's Hospital Los Angeles separated 9-month-old girls joined from the stomach to hip. The girls were listed in serious condition with stable vital signs, and they are expected to lead normal lives.

Meanwhile, two other medical teams are planning risky operations to separate twins joined at the head -- an extremely rare condition that occurs once in about 2.5 million births.

In one case, 17-month-old brothers from the Philippines were flown this week to New York City, where surgeons at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx are planning operations to separate them. In the second case, doctors at the North Texas Hospital for Children near Dallas plan this fall to separate 2-year-old Egyptian boys joined at the head. The brothers have been there since June last year.

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FDA Approves New Antibiotic for Skin Infections

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new type of antibiotic for the treatment of complicated skin infections that affect millions of patients each year.

The new drug, daptomycin, will be marketed under the brand name Cubicin by Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Lexington, Mass., the Associated Press reports.

To be given by injection, the drug is approved for the treatment, usually among hospitalized patients, of serious infections that involve the skin. These could include abscesses, post-surgical skin wound infections and skin ulcers.

Cubicin was approved after clinical studies with 1,400 patients showed it was safe and effective, and was equal to such standard drugs as vancomycin, oxacillin and nafcillin in the treatment of complicated skin and skin structure infections.

Its side effects include stomach upset, fever, headache, rash and dizziness, all of which are common, mild reactions patients often have to powerful antibiotics.

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Drug Reduces Mother-to-Infant HIV Transmission

An inexpensive AIDS drug given to expectant mothers during labor appears to significantly reduce the chances of HIV-virus transmission between mother and baby during delivery, Johns Hopkins University researchers say.

As reported in the Sept. 13 issue of The Lancet medical journal, a dose of nevirapine given to both the mother and the newborn reduced HIV transmission between the two by 41 percent. The study involved more than 600 HIV-positive women in Uganda, according to a Johns Hopkins news release.

Worldwide, some 800,000 babies are HIV-infected annually by transmission during delivery or by drinking breast milk, the World Health Organization says. More than 90 percent of these cases occur in poorer nations where people lack access to HIV treatment, alternatives to breast milk aren't available, and other ways to prevent transmission during delivery are too expensive.

The researchers say nevirapine is inexpensive and reasonably safe, especially when used only once during delivery. In high doses over prolonged use, the drug has been associated with serious rashes and liver problems.

A drawback is that the drug's effects don't last all that long, so that the AIDS-causing HIV virus can still be transmitted if the baby drinks an infected woman's breast milk, the researchers concede.

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No Such Thing as 'Hormone-Free' Milk, FDA Warns

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning leading manufacturers of milk and milk-based ice creams that they can't use the claims "no hormones" or "hormone free" on their packaging. There is no such thing as hormone-free milk, the agency insists.

Any such claim is inherently false, since "milk contains naturally occurring hormones, and milk cannot be processed in a manner that renders it free of hormones," the FDA says in a prepared statement.

Warning letters have been sent to four milk manufacturers, whose names the FDA did not disclose. The agency says it could take further action "such as seizure and/or injunction" if the companies do not change their advertising and product labels.

The agency concedes that companies that bill their products as "hormone-free" probably mean they are free of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), a genetically engineered hormone given to cows to stimulate the production of milk.

Because the genetically engineered version is virtually identical to the hormone that's produced by cows naturally, the agency says it won't require the milk makers to specially label milk that contains the genetically engineered form.

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