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Health Highlights: Jan. 27, 2009

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

California Octuplets in Stable Condition

Southern California octuplets delivered by Caesarean section Monday are in stable condition and breathing on their own, doctors at Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center said Tuesday.

Two of the eight infants (six boys and two girls) were initially put on ventilators, but their breathing tubes have been removed, the Associated Press reported. The babies weighed between 1.8 pounds and 3.4 pounds when they were born with the help of 46 doctors, nurses and assistants.

The unidentified mother checked into the hospital seven weeks ago, when she was in her 23rd week of pregnancy. Hospital officials wouldn't reveal whether she'd used fertility drugs.

This is only the second time in recorded history that octuplets have survived more than a few hours. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the world's first live octuplets were born in March 1967 in Mexico City, but all of them died within 14 hours.

In 1998, octuplets were born in Houston, Texas, but the smallest of those babies died a week after birth. The surviving siblings turned 10 in December, the AP reported.


Mixed Reactions to Medicare's Coverage of Off-Label Cancer Treatments

Medicare's decision to pay for unapproved drugs to treat cancer is being met with both praise and criticism.

Cancer doctors demanded the move because it enables cancer patients to receive the most up-to-date care and, in some cases, these off-label treatments may represent a patient's last hope, The New York Times reported.

Supporters of the decision, announced late last year, also say it will improve understanding of which treatments work against various types of cancer.

However, critics contend the use of drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration may waste money and needlessly expose cancer patients to side effects without offering them any benefits.

A cost analysis of the changes was canceled by Medicare, so it's difficult to determine how much the new policy will add to the $2.4 billion Medicare paid in 2007 for cancer drugs, the Times reported.


Heartburn Drugs May Neutralize Plavix

U.S. health officials are studying reports that the action of the popular blood thinner Plavix can be neutralized by some heartburn medications, the Associated Press reported.

Plavix, used to prevent deadly blood clots, has been prescribed to more than 90 million people worldwide. Because it can upset the stomach, Plavix (generic name clopidogrel) is often prescribed with heartburn drugs called proton pump inhibitors.

A few months ago, researchers reported that patients taking Plavix and these heartburn drugs had a significantly increased risk of hospitalization for chest pain, heart attack or stroke. The heartburn drugs may interfere with a liver enzyme need to metabolize Plavix, the researchers suggested.

In a statement, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it's important to fully understand the interaction between Plavix and proton pump inhibitors. The FDA also said there's no evidence that another family of heartburn drugs called H2 blockers interfere with Plavix, the AP reported.

For now, patients should continue taking Plavix but doctors should be cautious when prescribing heartburn drugs to patients taking the blood thinner, the FDA said.


Imported Diet Pills May Contain Amphetamines: Study

Consumers and doctors need to know that illegal diet pills from South America may contain amphetamines, warns a U.S. physician.

The majority of amphetamine-based diet suppressants have been banned in the United States, but many are still prescribed in South America and other parts of the world, said Dr. Pieter Cohen, of Cambridge Health Alliance and the Harvard Medical School, United Press International reported.

He said many American doctors aren't aware of these diet pills and need to know about the number of serious side effects they can cause in order to identify and treat patients with unexplained symptoms, such as chest pains, palpitations, headaches and insomnia.

In his study, Cohen reviewed two case reports of patients who took illegal diet pills that contained amphetamines. In one case, a woman's mysterious symptoms stopped after she stopped taking imported diet pills. The second case involves a man suspended from work after testing positive for amphetamines he ingested while taking imported diet pills, UPI reported.

The study appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.


Drug Giant Pfizer to Buy Rival Wyeth

Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical company, has announced an agreement to buy one of its rivals, Wyeth, for $68 billion, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Wyeth's biggest over-the-counter seller is the pain medication Advil (ibuprofen), which is the largest OTC ibuprofen brand sold in America. Its prescription drugs include the anti-depressant Effexor, acid reflux inhibitor Protonix, the pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar and the female hormone replacement drug Premarin.

Pfizer's drugs also often dominate the market and include Benadryl for allergies, Celebrex for pain, Lipitor for cholesterol control, Glucotrol for type 2 diabetes, Viagra for erectile dysfunction and Zoloft for depression.

While this one of the largest buyouts among pharmaceutical companies on record, it isn't the biggest, the Journal reports. In 2000, Glaxo Wellcome PLC acquired SmithKline Beecham PLC for $76 billion.

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Posted: January 2009