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Health Highlights: Aug. 27, 2008

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

Vaccine Said to Ward Off Bird Flu

An experimental bird flu vaccine appears to generate an immune response in people that can help guard against getting the disease, its producer says.

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 240 people since 2003, mostly in Asia. Experts worry that it will mutate to a form that's more easily passed from birds to people, triggering a human pandemic.

Novavax Inc. said of 160 people who got its two-injection vaccine, 94 percent produced an immune response against the virus, the Bloomberg news service reported.

The company's process uses insect-cell cultures, allowing it to produce seven to 10 times as much vaccine in the same span as older techniques that rely on mammal eggs or cells.

Traditional vaccines are made from chicken eggs, a process that can take up to six months. Novavax, by contrast, said it can produce a vaccine within 12 weeks of identifying a bird flu strain, Bloomberg reported.


Parkinson's Drug Slows Disease Symptoms: Maker

A drug already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the first medication to demonstrate that it hinders the progression of Parkinson's disease, the Bloomberg news service quotes the Israeli drug maker Teva Pharmaceuticals as saying.

Azilect slows the body's production of an enzyme that destroys dopamine, a hormone that when in short supply causes the tremors, depression, speaking and movement problems that characterize Parkinson's, the news service said.

In presenting clinical data at a medical conference in Madrid, Teva issued a statement saying Azilect demonstrated "significant improvement" in people who had taken the drug for 18 months, compared with those who had taken it for nine months.

Teva plans to ask the FDA for permission to label Azilect as a way to slow the progressive symptoms of Parkinson's, Bloomberg said.


FDA Raises Concern About New Ovarian Cancer Test

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is alarmed about a new blood test that its distributor says can detect ovarian cancer in its early stages, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

OvaSure, developed at Yale University, has been offered for about two months by one of the largest U.S. clinical laboratory firms, LabCorp. Despite an overwhelming need for such a test, the FDA and some medical organizations have raised red flags since its introduction in June, saying the diagnostic hasn't been tested enough, the Times said.

The Society for Gynecologic Oncologists almost immediately issued a statement, saying the organization feared unnecessary operations spurred by false positives.

If ovarian cancer is detected before it spreads from the ovaries, more than 90 percent of women in this stage will survive at least five years, the newspaper reported, citing the American Cancer Society.

Nonetheless, the FDA, which generally doesn't regulate diagnostics performed by a single laboratory, has informed LabCorp that there doesn't appear to be enough clinical data to validate that the test actually works, the Times reported.

In an Aug. 7 letter to LabCorp posted on the agency's Web site, the FDA said, "We believe you are offering a high-risk test that has not received adequate clinical validation and may harm the public health."

LabCorp responded that it looked forward to discussing the test with the agency, adding that it would continue to offer the diagnostic in the meantime, the newspaper said. The test costs $220 to $240.

The American Cancer Society estimates more than 21,000 cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, and more than 15,000 are expected to die from the disease, the Times reported.


Alabama to Charge Obese Workers Extra for Insurance

Any of Alabama's more than 35,000 state employees will be charged $25 per month for insurance that's usually free if they're too fat and don't work on losing the extra weight by January 2010, the Associated Press reported.

While other states reward workers who meet criteria for what's considered healthy, Alabama would be the first state to penalize those who qualify as obese. The monthly charge would apply to any state employee with a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or greater who "doesn't make progress" in slimming down, the wire service said. The state has yet to determine how much progress an employee would have to demonstrate.

A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. A person who is 5-feet, 6-inches tall and weighs 220 pounds would have a BMI of 35.5, the AP said.

The wire service cited statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that Alabama ranks second in the nation behind Mississippi as the state with the biggest weight problem. Nearly one-third of Alabamians are obese.

The director of Alabama's State Employees' Insurance Board said that a person with a BMI of 35 to 39 faces about $1,750 more in medical expenses each year than a person with a BMI of less than 25.

Alabama already charges a premium to state workers who smoke.

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Posted: August 2008