Cervical Cancer Vaccine Shows Solid Promise

A vaccine against cervical cancer that has shown promise in early studies has done well in widespread testing. Cervical cancers are caused by viruses, and many viral infections can be prevented with vaccines. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck has been working on a vaccine against two sexually transmitted viruses associated with cervical cancer.

Researchers have now completed a study in more than 12,000 young, cancer-free women in 13 countries who received placebos or three doses of the vaccine. Over the course of two years, none of the women who received all three vaccines became infected with the two virus strains that cause most cervical cancers or developed signs of cervical cancer. Twenty-one women who received the placebo did show early signs of cancer.

Merck says it will apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to sell the vaccine in the United States by the end of this year. Results of those tests were presented Friday at a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. — Joanne Silberner

Americans Eating and Exercising More

Oct. 6, 2005 — Americans may be eating more, but a new study finds they are also exercising more. The report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows an increase in physical activity during leisure time.

Researchers surveyed more than 400,000 men and women from various racial and ethnic groups. Overall, there was a six percent increase in the number of people reporting they were exercising, with activities including running, golfing, gardening, walking or calisthenics.

The biggest increase was among men over 50 and women over 60. But among those over 70 more than one-third still remain inactive. Health experts say regular physical activity can provide important health benefits, even when started later in life. They recommend all adults participate in at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity every day. — Patricia Neighmond

Democrats Push Medicare on Correcting Rx Drug Error

Oct. 6, 2005 — Democrats in the House and Senate are calling on the Bush administration to take stronger steps to correct an error in the Medicare handbook explaining the new prescription drug benefit.

About 14 million low-income Medicare beneficiaries are eligible for additional help paying for their drugs. They can sign up for certain private drug plans that cost less than the average for their area and pay no premium.

But the Medicare and You handbook now being mailed incorrectly states that all plans require no premium from those eligible for help. Medicare officials said the corrected information will be posted on the program's Web site and 1-800 number.

Democrats have said that's not good enough. They want paper notifications sent to everyone approved for the low-income benefit. They also want the government to pay the difference in costs for those who sign up for plans they can't afford because of the misinformation. — Julie Rovner

Expensive Produce Linked to Weight Gain

Oct. 5, 2005 — Children are likely to gain weight if they live in areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive, according to a study from the Rand Corporation.

Researchers studied nearly 7,000 children in 59 communities to see at how much weight they gained between kindergarten and third grade. At the same time, they calculated the price of meat, fish, dairy products and fruits and vegetables. They found children who lived in areas where fruits and vegetables were relatively expensive, such as Mobile, Ala., gained significantly more weight than those who lived in areas where fruits and vegetables cost less, like in Visalia, Calif.

Researchers say this is the first study to link the cost of food to weight gain among children. — Patricia Neighmond

Cancer Death Rate Falls

Oct. 4, 2005 — The death rate from cancer continues to decline, according to a new report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The report looked at cancer trends in the United States from 1993 to 2002, the latest year for which figures are available.

Over the decade, the death rate dropped by an average of 1.1 percent a year, with a slightly higher figure in men, and a slightly lower figure in women. The overall incidence of cancer remained the same.

The researchers suggest that earlier detection and better treatment have led to the decline in death from cancer. But racial disparities remain. According to the report, the incidence of cancer in black men is 25 percent higher than in white men, and the death rate is 43 percent higher. There was no significant improvement over the decade. — Joanne Silberner

Report: Chronic Disease a Global Problem

Oct. 4, 2005 — A new report from the World Health Organization finds that chronic conditions such as heart disease take an enormous toll worldwide, even in poor and middle income countries with other health problems.

Chronic diseases are often overlooked by health planners in poor countries, who focus instead on infectious diseases, infant mortality and nutrition. Yet the report found that chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, will prematurely kill 17 million people in the world this year, compared to 5 million deaths from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Many of the chronic disease deaths can be prevented with inexpensive approaches, such as a change in diet, eliminating tobacco, and exercise. The organization is calling on countries and funders to add chronic diseases to their areas of concern and aim at two percent reduction per year in the death rate. — Joanne Silberner

Quality Improves for Some Health Plans

Oct. 3, 2005 — Health plans that publicly report quality data have shown dramatic improvements in recent years. But fewer Americans are joining those plans, according to a new study.

The nearly 300 health plans that report data to the National Committee for Quality Assurance have improved their average performance in 18 of 22 categories, according to the organization's annual report. The NCQA says improvements in controlling patients' high blood pressure, cholesterol and other chronic conditions have saved an estimated 67,000 lives over the past six years.

Yet the number of Americans who belong to plans that measure and report quality has actually declined — to about 65 million — down more than 4 million in the last year alone. That's because more people are moving away from closed network plans that can control how care is delivered to less restrictive PPOs and high-deductible plans. The latter rarely measure or report performance information. — Julie Rovner

Meningitis Vaccine Questioned

Oct. 3, 2005 — Five people who were given a new vaccine to protect against bacterial meningitis have developed a nerve disorder, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It is not known yet whether these cases were caused by the vaccine or are coincidental," the agencies said in a statement. The nerve disorder has gone a way in some and is subsiding in others.

The vaccine is known by the brand name Menactra. The FDA approved it earlier this year for adolescents and for adults up to age 55. The CDC recommends it especially for adolescents and college freshman living in dorms.

Bacterial meningitis affects approximately 1 in 100,000 people annually. The infection can be life threatening. About 10 to 14 percent of cases are fatal and 11 to 19 percent of survivors may be left with a permanent disability, according to federal health officials.

The nerve disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome, is a rare disease that causes progressive weakness in the legs and arms. It can occur suddenly in healthy people or after certain infections. — Joe Neel

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