Health Highlights: Jan. 2, 2008

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

FDA Approves Rapid Test for Drug-Resistant Staph

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first rapid test to detect the widely publicized drug-resistant staph bacterium known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Methicillin is an antibiotic that had been successful in treating the staph germ. But the bacterium has mutated in recent years and is becoming more resistant to the drug, increasing a victim's chances of acquiring a fatal infection. Staph infections are commonly acquired in hospitals, nursing homes, and in other institutions that host people with weakened immune systems.

The BD GeneOhm StaphSR Assay helps doctors identify whether a blood sample contains MRSA or a less dangerous form of staph, the FDA said in a statement released Wednesday. The test takes about two hours to produce results, versus the two-day wait associated with other tests.

While the less dangerous form of staph can lead to mild infections with symptoms that may include painful boil-like bumps, MRSA infections can trigger infections of the blood stream or pneumonia, the agency said.

In clinical testing, the new test correctly diagnosed 100 percent of the MRSA infections and more than 98 percent of the less dangerous staph infections.

The test is manufactured by BD Diagnostics of Franklin Lakes, N.J.

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Smoking Rate Falls Among New York City Teens

Cigarette smoking declined by 20 percent among teens in New York City between 2005 and 2007, city Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said Wednesday, citing new survey results.

The city's teen smoking rate dropped from 17.6 percent in 2001 to 8.5 percent in 2007, Frieden said in a statement that was also signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz. The national teen smoking rate is 23 percent, they said.

The officials attributed the decline to stepped up enforcement of laws barring cigarette sales to minors, a cigarette tax increase, introduction of a smoke-free workplace law, and anti-smoking advertising on television and in city subways. They predicted that the smoking drop would prevent "at least 8,000 premature deaths."

New York City teen girls once had significantly higher smoking rates than boys, but that difference was wiped out in 2007. The smoking rate fell for teen boys to 8.3 percent from 10.5 percent, and for teen girls to 8.6 percent from 12 percent.

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Baylor Researchers Working on Cocaine Vaccine

A husband-and-wife research team at Baylor University is working on a vaccine for cocaine that they hope will become the first of its kind to treat people addicted to the drug, the Associated Press reported.

"For people who have a desire to stop using [cocaine], the vaccine should be very useful," said Dr. Tom Kosten, a psychiatry professor who is being assisted in the research by his wife, Therese, a psychologist and neuroscientist. "At some point, most users will give in to temptation and relapse, but those for whom the vaccine is effective won't get high and will lose interest."

The vaccine, currently in clinical trials, stimulates the immune system to attack cocaine when it's ingested. Kosten has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve a multi-institutional trial of the vaccine and is waiting for a response, the AP said.

"Addiction vaccines are a promising advance, but it's unlikely any treatment in this field will work for everyone," said Dr. David Gorelick, a senior investigator at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Still, if they prove successful, they will give those working in drug addiction an important option."

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France Cracks Down on Cigarette Smoking

The cigarette, once seen as a symbol of French sophistication, continues to fall out of fashion in that country. The nation's strictest measure to curb smoking took effect Wednesday with a ban on smoking in cafes, restaurants and discotheques, the Associated Press reported.

Under the new law, people lighting up indoors face a $93 fine, while owners of establishments face a $198 fine.

About a quarter of France's 60 million people still smoke. According to the Health Ministry, one in two smokers dies of a smoking-related disease, and about 5,000 nonsmokers die each year from secondhand smoke.

The prohibition of smoking anywhere but in private homes and outdoors is the latest step in a 15-year campaign that started with price hikes on cigarettes, the news service said.

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Saline Gargle May Identify Head and Neck Cancer

Gargling in the morning may be much more beneficial than merely freshening your breath, according to a study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore.

According to the report in the Jan. 1 issue of the journal Clinical Cancer Research, Johns Hopkins scientists have found that a saline solution used for gargling can identify genetic markers for head and neck cancer, especially for those at highest risk -- heavy smokers and alcohol drinkers.

According to a Johns Hopkins news release, 211 head and neck cancer patients and 527 individuals without cancer of the mouth, larynx or pharynx were asked to brush the inside of their mouths and then rinse and gargle with a salt solution.

Lead investigator Dr. Joseph Califano said researchers were able to filter out cells thought to contain one or more chemically altered genes found only in head and neck cancers.

And while the tests weren't 100 percent accurate in identifying malignancy, they did provide strong genetic indicators in those patients who have head and neck cancer.

"Few tests can be perfect 100 percent of the time in identifying both normal and cancerous cells," said Califano, an associate professor of otolaryngology -- head and neck cancer and oncology at Johns Hopkins. "Because head and neck cancers are not widespread, it makes more sense to screen those at high risk and to focus on a test's ability to accurately rule out healthy people," he said in the news release.

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Female Testosterone Drug Being Tested

The University of Virginia has joined 99 other medical research facilities in testing a new drug that could help women who have lost interest in sex.

According to the Associated Press, researchers at the UVa Health System will begin prescribing a drug that uses the male hormone testosterone to heighten a woman's libido. About one-third of American women are believed to be affected by hypoactive sexual disorder, the decline in the desire for sexual activity.

The drug, called LibiGel and made by BioSante Pharmaceuticals Inc., is still being tested for safety and effectiveness before it is submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.

The UVa Health System testing isn't for the general population, Dr. Anita Clayton, a psychiatrist who will supervise the study, told the AP

Only 25 women between the ages of 30 and 65 will be enrolled, she said, and they must have had both ovaries surgically removed and be taking an estrogen supplement. Finally, she said, they must display symptoms and concern about lack of sexual desire.

Posted: January 2008


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