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Health Headlines - August 29

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
1,000 Lawsuits Filed Against OxyContin Maker

Because a New York state judge refused to accept a class-action suit, about 1,000 individual lawsuits were filed Friday in New York City against the manufacturer of the controversial pain drug OxyContin.

The Associated Press reports that 14 cartons containing the legal papers were dropped off at the State court house in Staten Island, and that it took court employees four hours just to establish the processing procedure.

The reason that the cases have to be tried individually is that the hearing judge decided that too many of them had different injury claims and different evidence requirements. Oxycontin, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1995, is a powerful painkiller, often used in cancer cases.

But it is also powerfully addictive, something the plaintiffs claim the drug's manufacturer, Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn., failed to point out to patients and doctors when it marketed the drug.

These lawsuits are the latest in a series of thousands that have been filed against Purdue Pharma in the United States. According to AP, the company has never lost an OxyContin lawsuit, but there was a settlement with the West Virginia attorney general's office in November 2004.

New Government Rules Restrict Scientists' Consulting

Scientists employed by the U.S. government will no longer be allowed unlimited access to consult for private companies.

According to The New York Times, this re-emphasis of the importance of independent and impartial scientific medical research grew out of an investigation by officials at the National Institutes of Health.

According to the Times, the investigation found that 44 of the NIH's 1,200 senior scientists appeared to have violated rules governing consulting, and that nine might have violated criminal laws.

Most of the investigation centered on the relationship between government scientists and pharmaceutical companies, the newspaper said. Some government scientists apparently used their position to get consulting contracts with drug companies, and these relationships could cause conflict between government duties and private consulting.

The government probe was first reported in an investigative article by the Los Angeles Times.

While the new rules establish limits on the relationships between government scientists and the medical industry, they don't ban them entirely. The Times quotes Dr. Sidney Wolfe, of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, as saying that the new rules still allow government scientists to give medical education lectures paid for by drug companies.

"These rules by no means end the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on N.I.H. employees," said Wolfe.

FDA Delays Decision on 'Morning-After' Pill

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has delayed for 60 days its long-awaited decision on whether to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B contraceptive pill, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Plan B, often called the "morning-after" pill, can lower the risk of pregnancy by up to 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

In delaying its decision, the FDA said it was comfortable allowing over-the-counter sales to adults 18 and older, but wanted more time to decide how to keep it out of the hands of young teenagers, the AP said.

Plan B maker Barr Pharmaceuticals criticized the delay, saying scientific evidence supported non-prescription sales, the wire service said.

Merck May Settle Some Vioxx Lawsuits: Report

Pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck may be settling some of the many lawsuits that have been filed over Vioxx, the arthritis painkiller that has been shown to raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

In what appears to be a possible reversal of strategy, the company's general counsel, Kenneth C. Frazier, suggested in an interview with The New York Times that Merck would consider settling suits brought by people who took Vioxx for long periods of time and had few risk factors for heart disease.

Almost 5,000 Vioxx suits have already been filed, and in the first one to go to trial, Merck was found liable last week for the death of a Texas man who had taken the drug for eight months. Merck was ordered to pay $253 million to the man's widow.

Merck had previously said it planned to defend every personal-injury lawsuit filed over Vioxx. While Frazier denied that the company had made any change in its position, the Times quoted him as saying, "We would look at the facts of the case and make reasonable decisions."

Cases where settlements might be possible represent only a small fraction of all the lawsuits filed against Merck, Frazier added, noting the company does not plan to offer plaintiffs' lawyers an overall settlement of all the suits.

Last week's award was among the highest ever given to an individual plaintiff, although Texas law will automatically reduce it to about $26 million and Merck has said it will appeal.

Merck stopped selling Vioxx, part of a class of medicines called cox-2 inhibitors, last year after a clinical trial showed that patients taking the drug for more than 18 months had a substantially higher risk of heart attack and stroke than people taking a placebo. Other trials have shown that Vioxx raises heart risks over a shorter period of time compared with a placebo or with naproxen, an older painkiller.

Bextra, another cox-2 drug that is made by Pfizer Inc., has been withdrawn from the market because of cardiovascular risks. The only other cox-2, Pfizer's Celebrex, is still available to consumers but it carries a heightened warning about potential cardiovascular problems.

Toddlers Don't Have to Occupy Own Airline Seat: U.S.

Better for a baby to fly than to ride in a car. At least, that may be the thinking of the Federal Aviation Administration in its most recent ruling concerning small children and where they sit on the plane.

FAA officials have decided not to require toddlers under two years of age to occupy their own airline seats, the Bloomberg news service reports.

The rationale, according to the FAA, is that parents forced to pay for a toddler's plane ticket might decide to drive instead, putting the family at greater risk than if they flew, Bloomberg reported.

"Families are safer traveling in the sky than on the road," FAA chief Marion Blakey said in a statement. "If requiring extra airline tickets forces some families to drive, then we're inadvertently putting too many families at risk."

Airlines allow children under age two to fly in an adult's lap. The FAA estimated that requiring tickets for toddlers would have caused 13 to 42 additional highway deaths over 10 years, Bloomberg reported. Federal statistics show that three toddlers have died in aviation accidents over the last two decades, according to Bloomberg.

When Muscles Are Sore, Stay Cool

Easing sore muscles should begin with cold then move to heat, advise experts writing in the August issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter.

For relieving muscle pain caused by sprains and strains, the first step is to apply a cold compress for about 20 minutes at a time every four to six hours for the first few days. The cold should reduce swelling and inflammation, and relieve pain.

A cold compress can be a cold pack, a plastic bag filled with ice, or a bag of frozen vegetables. Wrap the cold compress in a towel or dry cloth to prevent frostbite when placing it on the skin.

The cold treatment should be followed by heat therapy, which can begin after the pain and swelling have subsided. That's usually two to three days after injury. The heat helps relax tight and sore muscles, and reduces pain.

Apply the heat to the injured muscle for 20 minutes up to three times a day using a hot water bottle, warm compress, heat lamp, warm bath or hot shower.

Heat is usually a better treatment than cold for chronic pain (i.e. arthritis pain) or for muscle relaxation, the article noted.

Java Joy: Study Touts Coffee's Benefits

When the Ink Spots sang "I love the java jive and it loves me" in 1940, they could not have known how right they were. Coffee not only helps clear the mind and perk up the energy, it also provides more healthful antioxidants than any other food or beverage in the American diet, according to a study released Sunday.

Of course, too much coffee can make people jittery and even raise cholesterol levels, so food experts stress moderation.

The findings by Joe A. Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, give a healthy boost to the warming beverage.

"The point is, people are getting the most antioxidants from beverages, as opposed to what you might think," Vinson said in a telephone interview.

Antioxidants, which are thought to help battle cancer and provide other health benefits, are abundant in grains, tomatoes and many other fruits and vegetables.

Vinson said he was researching tea and cocoa and other foods and decided to study coffee, too.

His team analyzed the antioxidant content of more than 100 different food items, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, oils and common beverages. They then used Agriculture Department data on typical food consumption patterns to calculate how much antioxidant each food contributes to a person's diet.

They concluded that the average adult consumes 1,299 milligrams of antioxidants daily from coffee. The closest competitor was tea at 294 milligrams. Rounding out the top five sources were bananas, 76 milligrams; dry beans, 72 milligrams; and corn, 48 milligrams. According to the Agriculture Department, the typical adult American drinks 1.64 cups of coffee daily.

That does not mean coffee is a substitute for fruit and vegetables.

"Unfortunately, consumers are still not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are better for you from an overall nutritional point of view due to their higher content of vitamins, minerals and fiber," Vinson said.

Dates, cranberries and red grapes are among the leading fruit sources of antioxidants, he said.

The antioxidants in coffee are known as polyphenols. Sometimes they are bound to a sugar molecule, which covers up the antioxidant group, Vinson said.

The first step in measuring them was to break that sugar link. He noted that chemicals in the stomach do the same thing, freeing the polyphenols.

"We think that antioxidants can be good for you in a number of ways," including affecting enzymes and genes, though more research is needed, Vinson said.

"If I say more coffee is better, then I would have to tell you to spread it out to keep the levels of antioxidants up," Vinson said. "We always talk about moderation in anything."

His findings were released in conjunction with the annual convention of the American Chemical Society in Washington.

In February, a team of Japanese researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that people who drank coffee daily, or nearly every day, had half the liver cancer risk of those who never drank it. The protective effect occurred in people who drank one to two cups a day and increased at three to four cups.

Last year, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that drinking coffee cut the risk of developing the most common form of diabetes.

Men who drank more than six 8-ounce cups of caffeinated coffee per day lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by about half, and women reduced their risk by nearly 30 percent, compared with people who did not drink coffee, according to the study in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she was not surprised by Vinson's finding, because tea has been known to contain antioxidants.

But Liebman, who was not part of Vinson's research team, cautioned that while many people have faith that antioxidants will reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and more, the evidence has not always panned out. Most experts are looking beyond antioxidants to the combination of vitamins, minerals other nutrition in specific foods, she said.

Food Fact:
Dr. red pepper?

Peppers rank surprisingly high on the list of healing foods. For instance, hot chile peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that acts as an anticoagulant and may help prevent heart attacks and strokes caused by blood clots. A half-cup of chopped red bell peppers provides 141mg of vitamin C and 4,250 IU of vitamin A -- more than an adult's daily needs for both. And whether they're mellow and sweet or fiery hot, all peppers are all good sources of potentially cancer-fighting antioxidants, especially vitamin C.

Fitness Tip of the day:
Don't discount fitness.

Can't fit exercise into your schedule? Here's how to exercise when you shop, and buy a little extra time! Mall walking makes exercise feel less like a chore and more a part of daily life. When the weather is bad walk laps with a friend around your area mall -- a great cardiovascular workout. To find a mall-walking program in your area, contact the management office of your local mall.

FAQ of the day:
When did garlic get its heart-healthy reputation?

Even ancient man suspected garlic was good for the heart. Dioscorides, the Roman who codified Greek herbal medicine in the first century A.D., wrote in his "Materia Medica" that garlic "clears the arteries." The ancient Indian Ayurvedic text "Charaka Samhita" holds that garlic "maintains the fluidity of the blood, strengthens the heart and prolongs life." But it's only in the past few decades that garlic's effect on blood cholesterol, blood clotting and other heart disease risk factors have been systematically studied.
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