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Health Headlines - May 17

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:23pm

West Nile Virus Decimates Several Bird Species

Mosquito-borne West Nile virus is the suspected cause of a dramatic decline in the populations of several North American bird species, including robins, blue jays and crows, says a study in the journal Nature.

Researchers led by Shannon LaDeau of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center found that the affected species all experienced large drops in numbers in conjunction with human outbreaks of West Nile virus infections in 2002 and 2003, Agence France-Presse reported.

Crows were most severely affected, losing about 45 percent of their population across the United States, said the researchers, who found that 13 of the 20 bird species they studied hit 10-year population lows after outbreaks of West Nile in humans.

Since the declines in 2002 and 2003, only two of the seven hardest-hit bird species have recovered to their previous levels, AFP reported.

West Nile virus first appeared in North America in 1999. Since then, there have been more than 24,000 human cases and about 1,000 deaths in the United States. Headaches, skin rashes, eye pain and extreme fatigue are among the symptoms of West Nile infection. Some people develop encephalitis or meningitis.

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Drug Spending Jumped Dramatically Over 7-Year Span

Money spent for medications prescribed in outpatient settings increased from $72 billion in 1997 to $191 billion in 2004, according to a new study by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

  • During the period 1997 to 2004, the average annual expenditure for prescription drugs for people age 65 and older increased 130 percent -- rising from $819 in 1997 to $1,914 in 2004. The average out-of-pocket cost more than doubled for this group, increasing from $483 in 1997 to $1,027 in 2004.
  • The average annual amount spent on prescription drugs by people under age 65 who purchased prescription medications rose 140 percent from 1997 to 2004 -- climbing from $347 in 1997 to $838 in 2004. From 1997 to 2004, the average annual amount this group spent out of pocket on prescription drugs rose from $143 to $304.
  • From 1997 to 2004, total purchases of outpatient prescription drugs increased from approximately 2 billion to nearly 3 billion prescriptions. This increase was driven, in part, by a rise in the average number of prescription drug purchases annually by the elderly age 65 and older, which increased from 22 to 31 purchases a year, according to the study.

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Anesthetist Gets 1,933 Years for Infecting Patients With Hepatitis C

A Spanish anesthetist was sentenced Tuesday to 1,933 years in prison for infecting 275 patients with hepatitis C, the Associated Press reported.

Juan Maeso, 65, first injected himself with portions of morphine shots meant for patients before giving the rest of the morphine to the patients. By doing so, Maeso, who was a morphine addict and had hepatitis C, infected the patients.

He infected the patients while working at four Valencia-area hospitals. Of the patients who were infected, four died, the AP reported.

While he received a sentence of 1,933 years from the Valencia Provincial Court, Spanish law dictates that the most Maeso can serve is 20 years. He was also ordered to pay $680,000 in damages to each of the victims or surviving family members.

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Medicare May Reduce Reimbursements for Anemia Drugs

U.S. Medicare officials have proposed sharp cuts in reimbursements for the anemia drugs Aranesp and Procrit following recent reports that the drugs -- widely used to treat anemia in cancer patients -- may actually make tumors worse or shorten patients' lives.

Based on that evidence, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed that the drugs only be used when anemia has reached a certain severity and that duration of treatment with the drugs be limited, The New York Times reported.

The agency also wants to deny reimbursement for the use of the drugs in patients with certain kinds of cancer, including common types such as breast, colon and lung.

The proposed changes are open to public comment for a month and could go into effect later this year. It's expected that there will be opposition from some patient groups and doctors, who argue that the drugs help cancer patients cope with chemotherapy, The Times reported.

The companies that make the drugs, Amgen (Aranesp) and Johnson & Johnson (Procrit), are also expected to fight the proposed changes.

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Huge Increase in Diabetes Drug Use Among U.S. Adolescent Girls

From 2001 to 2006, the number of girls ages 10 to 19 in the United States taking drugs for type 2 diabetes increased by 167 percent, while use of chronic medicines for psychotic behavior and insomnia roughly doubled among girls and boys in the same age group, according to a study by prescription benefit manager Medco Health Inc. of New Jersey.

In 2001, 0.1 percent of adolescent girls took drugs for type 2 diabetes, compared with 0.27 percent in 2006. Among boys, there was a 33 percent increase, to 0.08 percent in 2006, according to the study, which was released exclusively to the Associated Press.

The use of antipsychotic drugs approximately doubled, with 1.2 percent of boys and 0.75 percent of girls using them in 2006. The drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in adults, but not in children. However, they're often prescribed to children for unapproved used such as controlling disruptive behavior.

The Medco study, which looked at 370,000 insured young people, also found that use of prescription sleeping pills in adolescents nearly doubled, with 0.44 percent of girls and 0.3 percent of boys receiving them in 2006, the AP reported.

There was a leveling off or decline in the use of drugs to treat depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Antidepressant use in girls and boys dropped to about 4 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively, in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, the use of ADHD drugs in boys decreased to nearly 8 percent and leveled off in girls at 3.5 percent.

Experts said the study findings raise questions about mental and physical health problems in American youth and whether it's appropriate to give children drugs meant for adults, the AP reported.

Other methods, such as counseling, exercise, and changes in diet, bedtime routine and caffeine intake, may be more suitable for young people, experts suggested.

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New Smallpox Vaccine Appears Effective: FDA

An experimental smallpox vaccine called ACAM2000 seems to be nearly as effective as an older vaccine called Dryvax, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration documents released Tuesday.

ACAM2000 is derived from Dryvax, which is no longer being produced. Both are made using the cowpox virus, which is closely related to the smallpox virus, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA documents noted that both vaccines pose similar risks of serious side effects such as pain, itching, rash and rare cases of inflammation of the heart and surrounding sac.

An FDA advisory committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss whether the FDA should approve ACAM2000. Even though the new vaccine has not been approved, the U.S. federal government has stockpiled 192.5 million doses of ACAM2000, the AP reported.

If it is approved by the FDA, it's believed the vaccine will be given to deployed U.S. military personnel and others who would be at risk in the event of a smallpox outbreak.

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