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Health Headlines - May 24

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:23pm

FDA Wants Warning Boxes on MRI Contrast Agents

Companies that make gadolinium-based magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents have been asked to put boxed warnings on the products' labels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.

The contrast agents are used to enhance the quality of MRI images. The boxed warning would caution that patients with severe kidney insufficiency who receive the contrast agents are at risk of developing a potentially deadly disease called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF), United Press International reported.

The boxed warnings would also state that patients with chronic liver disease, and those who are about to have or have just undergone a liver transplant, are also at risk.

The FDA said there have been reports of NSF in patients who've received single and multiple administrations of gadolinium-based contrast agents, the news service reported.

Patients with NSF develop thickening of the skin and connective tissues. This impairs their ability to move and may result in broken bones. Other organs can also experience thickening. The cause of NSF is unknown and there is no consistently effective treatment for it, the FDA said.

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Brain Tumors Cause Financial Hardship: Report

A brain tumor is not just a medical crisis, it can also be a financial calamity, according to a National Brain Tumor Foundation survey released Wednesday.

The survey of 277 brain tumor patients and 214 caregivers found that 91 percent of the patients were working and had health insurance prior to their diagnosis. Despite that, many had to borrow money from friends and family, sell their homes and cars, max out their credit cards, or declare bankruptcy because they couldn't pay their bills. Some patients even became homeless.

Only 33 percent of the patients had jobs post-diagnosis and 62 percent were not receiving any disability benefits.

"The high cost of treatment, even for insured individuals, coupled with their inability to work and obtain disability income leaves people financially strapped. And that debt continues not only during the treatment period, but for those unable to go back to work, throughout the rest of their lives," Harriet Patterson, director of patient services for the National Brain Tumor Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

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Gene Therapy Effective in Mice With Hereditary Blindness

Using gene therapy, American researchers were able to restore sight in mice with a form of hereditary blindness that also affects humans, the Associated Press reported.

The mice had achromatopsia, which silences cone photoreceptors in the retina, resulting in extremely poor central vision and near-total color blindness. The condition affects about one in every 30,000 Americans.

In this study, researchers at the University of Florida and The Jackson Laboratory in Maine used a harmless virus to deliver corrective genes to the mice with achromatopsia. Within two months, 19 of the 21 treated eyes in the mice showed a positive response to the therapy, the AP reported.

The findings demonstrate that it's possible to target and rescue cone cells, which play a crucial role in visual sharpness and color vision. The study was published online Tuesday in the journal Nature Medicine.

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Deal Reached on Bird Flu Sample Sharing

A deal that ensures that all countries will share samples of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, and that developing countries will have access to newly developed bird flu vaccines, was announced Wednesday by the World Health Organization.

China and Indonesia have been reluctant to supply H5N1 samples to the WHO because of concerns that they'd be used to produce vaccines that the countries could not afford, BBC News reported.

The new agreement is a "big step forward in virus sharing," said a WHO official.

Currently, there are experimental vaccines based on the H5N1 virus. However, an effective vaccine would have to be based on the latest strain of the virus, BBC News reported.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt hailed the agreement.

"The open and rapid sharing of influenza samples ensures that the global public health community maintains critical pandemic influenza preparedness and response activities, including the development and production of pandemic influenza vaccines," Leavitt said in a prepared statement.

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Vietnam Reports Suspected Human Bird Flu Case

A suspected human case of H5N1 bird flu has been reported in Vietnam and, if confirmed, it would be the first human infection in that country in one-and-a-half years, Agence France-Presse reported.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is investigating the case, which involves a 30-year-old farmer from the northern province of Vinh Phuc. He is in critical condition in a Hanoi hospital.

About a month ago, the man helped slaughter chickens from a neighboring farm, where several birds in the flock later got sick and died. This week, a veterinary team was sent to inspect the farm, AFP reported.

Between 2003 and late 2005, 42 people in Vietnam were killed by the H5N1 virus. There have been no reported human infections in the country since November 2005.

In related news, Indonesian officials reported Wednesday that a 5-year-old girl in Central Java province had died of bird flu. The girl had experienced bird flu symptoms for more than a week. It's believed she was infected by sick chickens around her home, the Associated Press reported.

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Climate Change Will Boost Infectious Diseases: Experts

Global climate change will trigger a major increase in the number of emerging infectious diseases, a panel of experts said during a news conference Tuesday at the American Society of Microbiology's annual general meeting in Toronto, Canada.

The experts added that rising temperatures will alter the way that dozens of infectious diseases -- such as lyme disease, malaria and currently unknown viruses -- affect human health, the Toronto Star reported.

They also said that diseases currently found in tropical areas will spread into more temperate regions. In addition, there will be more hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and other extreme weather events that will result in more public health emergencies.

One expert said that increased travel will contribute to an increase in rates of infectious disease around the world, the Star reported. Rita Colwell, a professor at the University of Maryland, noted that millions of people travel each year.

"You just one cough away from an infectious disease you would not have been exposed to 50 years ago," she said.

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