Health Highlights: Dec. 15, 2010

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

Blood Stem Cell Transplant 'Cures' Man's HIV: Report

An American man living in Germany appears to have been cured of HIV infection after receiving a blood stem cell transplant in 2007 to treat leukemia, according to researchers.

The donor had a gene mutation that seems to confer natural resistance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And the recipient, who is in his 40s, has no signs of HIV infection or leukemia, the Associated Press reported.

While this case study in the journal Blood is interesting, this method of treating HIV infection is not practical for widespread use, according to experts.

"It's an interesting proof-of-concept that with pretty extraordinary measures a patient could be cured of HIV," but the procedure is much too dangerous to become standard therapy, Dr. Michael Saag, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the AP.

The therapy, which is used to treat cancer, involves powerful drugs and radiation to destroy a patient's immune system, and then replace it with donor cells to develop a new immune system. The death rate from the procedure or its complications can be 5 percent or greater, according to Saag, who is past chairman of the HIV Medicine Association.

It's difficult to justify using blood stem cell transplants to treat HIV infection when the level of risk is so high and drugs can keep HIV infection under control in most patients, Saag told the AP.

The only exception might be a patient who has both HIV and cancer, he said.

When this unique case first came to light a few years ago, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the therapy was too dangerous and costly to be practical as a cure for HIV. However, Fauci also said this case may offer new clues on how to use gene therapy or other techniques to cure people with HIV, the AP reported.

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Cough Capsules Pose Risks to Young Children: FDA

The cough capsule medication Tessalon (benzonatate), which has a candy-like appearance, can result in serious side effects and even death if swallowed by children younger than 10 years old, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.

Tessalon, approved by the FDA to treat coughs in patients older than 10, may attract younger children because of the drug's candy-like appearance -- a round, liquid-filled gelatin capsule. The safety of Tessalon has not been studied in children younger than 10, the agency said.

"Benzonatate should be kept in a child-resistant container and stored out of reach of children," Carol Holquist, director of FDA's Division of Medication Error Prevention and Analysis, said in an agency news release. "The FDA encourages health-care professionals to talk with their patients and those caring for children about the risk of accidental ingestion or overdose."

The FDA said a review of its database from 1982 through May 2010 revealed seven cases of accidental ingestion of Tessalon in children younger than 10. Five of the cases resulted in death in children ages 2 years and younger. Overdoses in children younger than 2 years have been reported with just one or two capsules, the agency said.

Reactions can include cardiac arrest, coma, and convulsion, and signs and symptoms of an overdose can occur within 15-20 minutes of ingestion, the FDA said. The agency said it was adding a new "warning and precaution section to the drug's label.

Consumers and health-care professionals are urged to report adverse side effects or medication errors from the use of Tessalon to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program at www.fda.gov/MedWatch or by calling 800-332-1088.

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More Money Needed for Anti-Malaria Program: WHO

A funding shortfall threatens to reverse the achievements of a huge malaria control program that has eradicated the disease in Morocco and Turkmenistan and reduced infections across Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters in Geneva that the U.N.'s anti-malaria program has contributed to a greater than 50 percent decrease in malaria cases in 11 African countries and in two-thirds of the 56 malaria-endemic nations outside of Africa, the Associated Press reported.

Worlwide, the number of malaria infections fell from 233 million in 2000 to 225 million in 2009, despite increasing populations in poor nations. Malaria deaths dropped from 985,000 in 2000 to 781,000 in 2009.

This year, the anti-malaria program received $1.8 billion in funding, but the WHO estimates $6 billion a year is needed to achieve the goal of eliminating malaria deaths worldwide by 2015, the AP reported.

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FDA Reexamines Safety of Amalgam Dental Fillings

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is rehearing evidence about the safety of amalgam dental fillings, less than 18 months after the agency declared the so-called silver fillings safe.

The amalgam -- which contains about 50 percent liquid mercury in a mix of powdered copper, tin and silver -- is safe, effective and one of the most inexpensive dental products on the market, according to dentists' groups, NewsDay reported.

But four consumer advocacy organizations challenged the FDA's March 2009 ruling about amalgam, which has been used in the United States and elsewhere for more than 150 years. The critics point to new studies that suggest amalgam fillings may be associated with neurological conditions and even Alzheimer's disease in some people.

An FDA panel of experts met Tuesday and Wednesday to consider evidence from several scientific studies. They also heard from people who say they've been harmed by the fillings, NewsDay reported.

Some countries have banned amalgam fillings and others have restricted its use.

Posted: December 2010


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