Health: Latest Findings

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DRUG SAFETY
Avandia Takes a Hit but Survives
Following two days of contentious discussion, a federal advisory committee recommended keeping the troubled diabetes drug Avandia (rosiglitazone) on the market, but with added restrictions. The panel was deeply divided, with 12 members voting to ban the drug and 17 advocating its continued sale with stricter warnings and limited use for certain patients. (Three voted for no change.) The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which usually follows its panels' recommendations, has yet to make a final decision on the drug's fate.

Since Avandia was approved in 1999, persistent questions about its safety have made it the target of a 2007 Senate inquiry as well as the subject of two FDA drug-safety meetings. Studies conducted by its maker, GlaxoSmithKline, before and after approval, confirmed that Avandia increases heart problems, a particularly worrisome risk, given that diabetes patients are already vulnerable to cardiac events. These concerns were exacerbated by evidence that the company wanted to suppress some of the data from regulators and the public.

Patients who wish to switch from Avandia have options for controlling blood sugar. Doctors can prescribe a drug in the same class that does not appear to have the same heart risks, or prescribe other types of antidiabetic medications.

CHILD HEALTH
Universal Cholesterol Screening for Kids
Should all youngsters be tested for high cholesterol? New research on more than 20,000 fifth-grade students in West Virginia suggests that comprehensive screening would identify more children with elevated blood-lipid levels and higher risk of heart disease than present procedures do. The study found that current national screening guidelines, which call for testing children only if they have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, miss 10% of kids with abnormal levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol (above 130 mg/dl). Among those children, 18% have levels high enough (above 160 mg/dl) to warrant cholesterol-lowering medication.

But officials at the American Heart Association argue that across-the-board screening may not be cost-effective. Instead, they recommend revising national screening criteria to include factors like the child's weight along with family history of heart disease to capture more of these vulnerable youngsters. Both the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics already use obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes to screen children as young as 2. An update of federal cholesterol-screening guidelines is expected by spring 2011.

FROM THE LABS
The Earliest Signs Of Alzheimer's
Proposed new guidelines for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease may help doctors pick up the condition earlier and potentially treat patients well before the first symptoms of dementia set in. Currently, physicians can diagnose Alzheimer's prospectively only on the basis of patients' progressive loss of memory and cognitive function. Only an autopsy in which pathologists observe the condition's hallmark protein plaques and tangles in the brain can confirm the disease. But the new guidelines, which include the use of brain scans and tests that pick up the protein footprints of the disease, will help detect the condition as it is still developing. Researchers hope earlier detection will provide drugmakers with more opportunities to develop treatments that can halt the degenerative disorder.

DANGEROUS DIPS
Although food-related illness can stem from a variety of sources in a restaurant kitchen — any contaminated or improperly handled raw ingredients or unsanitary prep conditions — two dining-out staples, salsa and guacamole, pose particular risk, accounting for 1 in 25 food-borne outbreaks. Because they contain raw produce and are made in large batches, even a small contamination can affect a large number of consumers.

DATA SET

10 MILLION
Lives potentially saved by 2025 if a new UNAIDS HIV-treatment plan is adopted

5.1%
Percentage of weight lost by obese patients taking a low dose of Qnexa, an experimental drug

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2); Food and Drug Administration (2); International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease; Pediatrics ; UNAIDS Outlook