Drug Safety, Tainted Food Among Year's Top Health Stories

MONDAY Dec. 31, 2007 -- Widely used drugs with questionable side effects, and major recalls of foods consumed by Americans and their pets --both of those stories, plus a significant stem cell breakthrough, made the headlines in 2007.

Here are some of the year's notable health stories:

Some Popular Drugs Lose Their Luster

After a number of studies suggested that the diabetes drug Avandia might boost users' odds for heart attack, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November slapped its strongest "black box" warning on the drug's labeling, outlining the risk.

A month earlier, a special FDA advisory panel urged a ban on over-the-counter cold medicines for children younger than 6. The panel found that there was no scientific evidence the remedies actually work in kids, and that, in rare cases, the drugs might even cause harm.

Also this fall, the FDA added black-box heart-risk warnings to blockbuster anemia drugs such as Procrit, Epogen and Aranesp. The agency found little evidence to back up drug makers' claims that the medicines can ease the fatigue of cancer patients and other users.

Earlier in the year, a Dutch study revealed no health benefit from the use of torcetrapib, a once-promising experimental drug that boosts levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. The drug's maker, Pfizer Inc., had already pulled the plug on its torcetrapib trial in 2006, following similar results.

The Vioxx saga, which began when the prescription painkiller was pulled from the market due to heart risks in 2004, may have reached a financial close this year, with maker Merck & Co. announcing a $5 billion payout to claimants who said they had been hurt by the drug.

Record Numbers of Uninsured

A U.S. Census Bureau report found that 47 million Americans went without health insurance in 2006, compared to 44.8 million the year before -- a 0.5 percent rise and the biggest number of U.S. uninsured ever. Almost one in five children living below the poverty line now has no health insurance, the August report found.

In December, another report, this time from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimated that about 20 percent of Americans either can't afford or can't access health care. And a Consumer Reports survey released last summer found half of those surveyed admitting that they were financially "unprepared" for a medical emergency -- including 43 percent of people with some form of insurance.

Hidden Dangers in Food, Toys

In 2007, American consumers filled their grocery bags with increasing trepidation following massive, nationwide food recalls. These included beef patties contaminated with E. coli bacteria; salmonella-tainted peanut butter; botulism found in canned green beans, chili sauce and corned beef hash; Shigella-laced baby carrots; Listeria in chicken breasts -- and the list went on.

Even the nation's pets weren't immune: Throughout the spring, a widening probe into the deaths of more than 330 dogs and cats dominated the headlines. The suspected culprit: melamine, found in a wide variety of pet foods and added as a cheap filler by food suppliers in China.

The "Made in China" label came under further scrutiny after an ongoing rash of toy recalls -- everything from lead-tainted charm bracelets to Aqua Dots toys laced with the date-rape drug GHB.

Many experts criticized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for poor oversight of both domestic and imported products. Bowing to pressure, the agency in November issued tough new proposals, including better financing and broader powers with which to tackle the problem.

Legislative Moves Toward Healthier Food

The federal and local governments nudged the nation's cooks and food manufacturers toward healthier fare in 2007, with New York City's ban on deadly trans fats in restaurant foods leading the way. Other cities soon followed suit. At the same time, fast-food outlets like Burger King and Wendy's offered low-fat or no-fat menu options, while the FDA mulled new regulations that would reduce the amount of salt in processed foods.

Good News on the Stem Cell Front

In November, separate teams of researchers in the United States and Japan announced what could spell the end of fractious ethical debate over the use of embryonic stem cells. Both groups said they had managed to transform human skin cells into cells that very closely approximate embryonic stem cells. "We are now in the position to be able to generate patient- and disease-specific stem cells, without using human eggs or embryos," Japanese senior researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanaka told reporters.

Progress in the War Against Cancer

The nation's No. 2 killer was dealt some killer blows of its own this year. In November, the American Cancer Society, the CDC, and others reported that the decades-long decline in deaths due to cancer picked up speed recently, with annual declines doubling to 2.1 percent fewer cases annually during the years 2002-2004. Deaths among women from either breast or lung cancer fell especially steeply, possibly linked to recent drops in the use of hormone replacement therapy and smoking, respectively.

At the same time, exciting new medicines are beginning to turn the tide against some of the toughest malignancies. The molecular-targeted drug Nexavar was found to boost survival for those with advanced liver cancer by 44 percent, researchers said, while another drug, Avastin, doubled the survival odds of patients battling kidney cancers.

Controversy Over Heart Disease Treatments

The news on treatments for the No. 1 killer -- heart disease -- was more mixed. Early in 2007, the long-awaited results of the COURAGE trial found that aggressive drug therapy was just as good as invasive angioplasty in helping patients avoid heart attack. However, a re-analysis of the data in September put those findings in doubt, re-igniting the drugs-vs.-surgery debate.

And the showdown over artery-opening stents -- expensive, drug-coated versions versus cheaper "bare metal" models -- continued. In March, a major study found that a third of patients who receive drug-coated stents did not get the post-surgical medications they need to keep the devices functioning. However, two studies released in the fall determined that drug-coated stents did offer patients more health benefits, with no more risk, compared to bare-metal stents.

Infectious Disease Numbers Cause Concern

In the fall, experts at the World Health Organization announced that changes in their computing methods meant the number of people estimated to be living with AIDS around the world has dropped -- from 39.5 million in 2006 to 33.2 million in 2007. On the other hand, sources close to CDC statisticians said the agency will soon bump up the rate of new HIV infections in the United States, from 40,000 to 60,000 annually, based on improved reporting methods.

And another lethal pathogen emerged as a potent threat in 2007. Outbreaks of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can cause skin infections or more dangerous blood infections, are now an "epidemic," according to CDC experts. The infections, which don't respond to most antibiotics, are typically spread by skin-to-skin contact in schools and hospitals.

Posted: December 2007


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