NPR Health News Briefs: June 5 - June 11, 2005

The New England Journal of Medicine is releasing details on problems linked to Tysabri, a once-promising drug for multiple sclerosis.

The makers of Tysabri pulled it off the market in February, after reports that two patients taking the drug developed a rare neurological disorder. One died and one survived. A third case was announced in March. The man died. He was taking the drug for Crohn's disease, not MS. The company is evaluating a possible fourth case.

Now, the New England Journal is publishing details of the first three cases. All three patients were taking other drugs that may have interacted with Tysabri. The drug works differently, and often more effectively, than other MS drugs.

Researchers say it looks like the drug is allowing the activation of a virus picked up by many people during childhood. The virus normally causes no problems. — Joanne Silberner

Molecule May Help in Diagnosing Cancer

June 9, 2005 — Scientists say a new kind of molecule may help them better diagnose cancer.

The molecule is called a micro RNA. Human cells make about 200 different microRNAs. Scientists are still working out precisely what microRNAs do. One of their roles is to switch off genes.

Different cell types make different amounts of the various micro RNAs, and that's where their value in diagnosing cancers comes in. Sometimes, it's hard to tell what organ a tumor comes from just by looking at it under the microscope. But when scientists from Harvard Medical School looked at the levels of micro RNAs inside these tumors, they could accurately predict where the tumor originated. The new study appears in the journal Nature.

MicroRNAs may not just be useful in diagnosing cancer. New research also suggests these molecules may play a role in initiating some cancers. — Joe Palca

Study: Insured Americans Footing Much of Bill for Ininsured

June 8, 2005 — Americans with insurance are footing a major portion of the health bills for the uninsured, according to a new study.

Care for the uninsured boosted the average family premium for health insurance by more than $900 this year, and the average individual premium by more than $300. The study by Emory University Health Economist Ken Thorpe, for the consumer group families USA, is the first to attempt to quantify how much of the health costs for the uninsured are borne by the private sector.

The study found that the uninsured pay about a third of their medical bills from their own pockets, and government programs pay another 20 percent. The rest is passed on to health providers, who in turn charge paying private customers more, resulting in higher health-insurance premiums.

Without change, by 2010, the study estimates that the cost of caring for the uninsured will boost the average family health insurance premium by more than $1,500. — Julie Rovner

June 7, 2005 — Thousands of Medicaid patients whose drug coverage is about to be changed have received their first notices from the government — with nothing in the envelopes.

About 6 million people whose drugs are currently covered by the Medicaid program will have to switch to Medicare drug coverage starting next January 1. Many are very old, very frail, or very disabled, and senior advocates have worried it will be hard for them to make the switch.

Federal officials are starting early to ease the transition, with a mailing that began in late May. Unfortunately, some of the notices didn't make it into some of the envelopes, and the envelopes are arriving empty.

Federal officials say they don't know how widespread the problem is, but they note that even an error rate of .1 percent could result in 6,000 phantom mailings. Officials are encouraging those who received the empty envelopes, and those who serve the low-income elderly, to report problems to Medicare's toll-free phone line. — Julie Rovner

Study: Dangerous Staph Germs Are Also Hardy

June 7, 2005 — Researchers say a common germ that is resistant to antibiotics can survive for days, weeks or months on environmental surfaces.

Antibiotic-resistant staph germs are common causes of infection among hospital patients. They can cause stubborn surgical wound infections, pneumonia and death. And resistant staph is showing up outside of hospitals — among prison inmates, athletics teams and gay men.

Researchers at Ecolab, a Minnesota company, studied how long resistant staph germs could survive on environmental surfaces. They reported the results at an Atlanta meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

Staph germs survived five days on bed linen, six weeks on computer keyboards and eight weeks on artificial fingernails. The researchers say their findings underscore the need for frequent hand-washing and thorough disinfecting of surfaces in hospitals. — Richard Knox

Poll Finds Strong Support for Legal Birth Control

June 7, 2005 — Forty years after the Supreme Court declared birth control legal, a new poll finds broad public support.

Reports have been growing of pharmacists declining to fill birth-control pill prescriptions because of moral or religious objections.

But the poll, commissioned by the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, found those objectors are members of a small minority. Eighty-eight percent of voters in the poll, including 80 percent of Republicans, said they support women's access to contraception. Eight in 10 respondents who identified themselves as "pro-life" also said women should be able to get contraceptives.

The poll was taken to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut ban on selling birth control to married couples. The court did not extend that right to unmarried individuals until 1972, a year before it legalized abortion. — Julie Rovner

Mental Illnesses Widespread in U.S., Study Says

June 6, 2005 — A new survey of Americans confirms that mental illnesses are common and rarely treated correctly.

Hundreds of surveyors asked 9,000 Americans how they felt and how they dealt with mental health problems. Based on the answers, researchers from Harvard University figured out how many had a mood disorder such as depression, or an anxiety disorder, a history of substance abuse or some other condition.

About 6 percent of adults in the U.S. meet criteria [for mental illness]," said study head Ronald Kessler. "This is similar in magnitude to diabetes and cancer [among] working-aged people."

Many more had mild or moderate problems.

The survey also showed that the first symptoms of mental illness usually appear during adolescence, and most people never seek treatment. — Joanne Silberner

Vaccines Against Ebola, Marburg Show Promise

June 5, 2005 — Researchers report success in making vaccines against two of the deadliest viruses known — Ebola and Marburg. They hope to test the vaccines in humans in two or three years.

Ebola and Marburg viruses regularly appear from unknown sources in Africa to cause frightening epidemics. A Marburg outbreak in Angola has killed nearly 350 people since March. Experts fear terrorists might use these viruses as weapons.

Researchers have tried to make Ebola and Marburg vaccines, with limited success. Now a Canadian-American team say they've done it.

They started with an animal virus called VSV. Into it they inserted genes from either Ebola or Marburg. The researchers report a single dose of the modified virus completely protected monkeys who later received high doses of Ebola or Marburg.

If human tests are successful, the first to receive the vaccine would be health workers responding to epidemics. — Richard Knox

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