Bird Flu Poised to Spread in N. Africa

International health officials confirm that the Asian bird flu virus has spread to several states in Nigeria, raising fears the disease will soon enter neighboring countries.

The World Organization for Animal Health, based in Paris, is waiting for confirmation from the Nigerian government. But the agency says it's safe to say that the H5N1 bird flu virus is causing large die-offs of poultry in four states in north-central Nigeria.

Dr. Alex Thiermann, the agency's lead authority on avian flu, said it is urging neighboring nations — Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin — to check their farms and stamp out any signs of H5N1.

"To us, the entry into the African continent is very alarming," Thiermann said. "I find it extremely difficult to contain this infection within a country when we look at the infrastructures that they have."

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa and has a large poultry industry. — Richard Knox

FDA Panel Recommends Ritalin Warning Label

Feb. 10, 2006 — A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel that was supposed to suggest ways to study the safety of drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) went a step further and asked the agency to immediately consider labels warning that the drugs may cause cardiovascular problems.

The warning label recommendation was prompted by the recent dramatic increase in the use of drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall and Strattera. It was a narrow vote, eight to seven.

"We needed to let the public know we have concerns about the drugs, and that those concerns will not be addressed right away," said Dr. Steven Nissen, a panel member and cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic "In the meantime, [the public] should really have more information about the risk and benefit."

A second panel is scheduled to meet in March. — Joanne Silberner

U.S. Sees Decline in Cancer Deaths

Feb. 9, 2006 — For the first time in more than 70 years, the number of people dying of cancer in the United States has declined, according to the American Cancer Society.

The report, hailed as a milestone, comes from an analysis of death statistics gathered by the federal government. Nationwide in 2003, 369 fewer people died from cancer than the year before. All told, about 557,000 people died from cancer. But until 2003, every year saw an increase in cancer deaths. Officials say the overall drop results from declines in lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers. Earlier diagnoses, better treatments and a decline in smoking have contributed to the decrease.

Even so, while deaths dropped among men, they increased among women. Officials say that's because women, in general, didn't start smoking until well after men. Lung cancer rates among men have declined. Among women, rates had been increasing but have recently leveled off. — Patricia Neighmond

Safety of ADHD Drugs Questioned

Feb. 9, 2006 — The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today is holding a hearing on the safety of drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drugs have been associated with psychiatric and cardiovascular problems in adults and children, as well as some deaths.

The Canadian government took one of these drugs off the market last year after analyzing U.S. data on 20 deaths in four years. Several months later, the decision was reversed.

The FDA is convening a panel of experts to figure out how to asses the safety of these drugs. Two FDA staffers, who have been outspoken about the dangers of Cox-2 painkiller drugs and antidepressants, are scheduled to present their evaluations of ADHD drugs to the panel. Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has sent a letter of complaint to the acting commissioner of the FDA. Grassley says the agency is moving too slowly. — Joanne Silberner

Antidepressants Linked to Newborn Lung Problems

Feb. 9, 2006 — A new study complicates the decision of pregnant women with depression about whether to take medication for their illness.

A recent study of 200 pregnant women with depression showed a high relapse rate among those who stopped taking their medication. But there are various reports of withdrawal symptoms in babies born to mothers taking the new antidepressants, known as SSRIs.

Now, a New England Journal of Medicine study suggests the use of SSRIs may cause a rare and potentially fatal condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. SSRI use after 20-weeks gestation raised the risk of the condition about six fold. Still, the condition is so rare that the researchers calculate that 99 percent of pregnant women who remain on SSRIs will have unaffected babies. Use of the antidepressants earlier in the pregnancy, and use of other antidepressants, had no effect. — Joanne Silberner

Low-Fat Diets May Not Cut Disease Risk

Feb. 8, 2006 — A low-fat diet doesn't prevent breast cancer, colon cancer or heart disease, according to several studies appearing in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers wanted to know whether a low-fat diet helped prevent disease among women after menopause. In the studies of nearly 50,000 women, about half received nutrition counseling which recommended a low-fat diet. The other half ate their usual diet. After eight years, there was no significant difference in the numbers of women who suffered heart disease, colon cancer or breast cancer.

But researchers say there are other considerations. For one, women were not encouraged to eat so-called good fats, which are derived from plants, fish and nuts. These are known to decrease bad cholesterol. And, because the women were all over 50 when they started the study, it could be that switching to a low-fat diet later in life just isn't soon enough. — Patricia Neighmond

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