Syphilis Rates Rise in Gay Men

After a 13-year decline, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting an increase in the rate of syphilis in the United States, primarily among gay men.

Between the year 2000 and 2004, cases of syphilis increased by 2,000 to nearly 8,000. The overwhelming majority of those cases were among men. The rate of syphilis among women went down, leading analysts at the CDC to conclude that the increases are occurring mainly among gay men.

The rate of syphilis went up among men in all ethnic and racial groups except Asians. But rates among black men were five times as high as they were among white men. Syphilis appears to be running in tandem with the HIV epidemic, It's concentrated in the South, exacerbated by risky behavior, use of methamphetamines and surfing for sex partners in Internet chat rooms. All areas, the CDC says, that need to be targeted by public health officials. — Brenda Wilson

Chiron Recalls Measles Vaccine

March 17, 2006 — The vaccine manufacturer Chiron announced that is recalling 5 million doses of a measles vaccine that it supplies mainly to developing countries in the Middle East and Latin America, and to Italy.

The Morupar vaccine was recalled after a survey in Italy showed a higher rate of side effects than with other measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines. According to Chiron, the reactions were mild and included fever and swelling of the glands. Chiron says it's not clear why this is happening, though Morupar contains an ingredient other MMR vaccines don't. There's no indication that a long-term risk is involved. Chiron says it is withdrawing the vaccines as a precautionary measure.

Chiron does not supply U.S. MMR vaccines and it is consulting with the World Health Organization to determine whether the benefits of giving children the Morupar vaccine outweigh the risk of getting the measles if there's no alternative. It's a highly infectious disease with deadly consequences for children in poor counties. — Brenda Wilson

Drugs Best Talk Therapy in Elderly with Depression

March 16, 2006 — Antidepressant drugs are the best treatment for elderly people dealing with depression, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers were surprised to find that antidepressant drugs worked so much better than psychotherapy among older patients.

The study followed men and women who were 70 or older for two years after they'd had a bout of depression. Of those who got the anti-depressant drug Paxil, one-third then had another bout of depression. But more than two-thirds had another bout among those who received a placebo drug and psychotherapy.

The researchers said some of the participants may have been developing Alzheimer's disease, and that might explain why they had difficulty benefiting from talk therapy.

The study says doctors usually prescribe antidepressant drugs to older patients for six to 12 months. But the authors say even life-long use of the medication might be a better choice. — Joseph Shapiro

Molecule Key to Memory Loss Identified

March 15, 2006 — Scientists have found a molecule that appears to cause some of the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Many scientists believe that a protein known as amyloid beta plays a critical role in Alzheimer's disease. But amyloid beta comes in many forms, and it hasn't been clear which one actually causes the problems.

Now, working with a special breed of mice, scientists at the University of Minnesota have found that a molecule made of 12 amyloid beta proteins linked together seems to be the culprit. They've shown that injecting this molecule into healthy rats causes the rats to have memory problems.

Since this molecules appears in the rodents long before any brain damage is evident, it's possible it may someday be useful in figuring out who will get Alzheimer's, and who won't.

The research appears in the current issue of the journal Nature. — Joe Palca

Study: Few Disparities in Care Between Whites, Minorities

March 15, 2006 — A surprising finding about quality of medical care appears in this week's New England Journal of Medicine. A survey of nearly 7,000 patients finds only small differences in quality of care between minorities, Caucasians, insured and uninsured.

Researchers from the Rand Corporation, University of California, Los Angeles and Veterans Affairs judged quality of care based on more than 400 different factors, which included measures like disease screening and recommended treatments for disease. What they found is at odds with the results of previous, smaller studies. Blacks and Hispanics actually fared slightly better than whites. And health insurance made little difference in the quality of care. Women fared better than men when it came to preventive services. And patients under 31 got better care than those over 64. But overall, researchers say pretty much everyone didn't receive the recommended quality of care. They blame an overcrowded, fragmented health-care system. — Patricia Neighmond

Drug May Reverse Heart Disease

March 14, 2006 — A widely used cholesterol-lowering drug can actually reverse heart disease, according to report from the American College of Cardiology meeting in Atlanta.

The study is the first to show that a pill can clear cholesterol-rich deposits that clog coronary arteries.

Several hundred heart-disease patients took the maximum dose of a drug called rosuvastatin, sold under the brand name Crestor. After two years, patients' levels of "bad" cholesterol level went down by half. "Good" cholesterol levels went up 15 percent. Ultrasound pictures showed deposits in coronary arteries shrank by about 9 percent.

Dr. Steven Nissen of Cleveland Clinic led the study.

"It suggests there's more that we can still do for patients with heart disease, even with a class of drugs like statins that have been around for almost 20 years," said Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic, who led the study.

Bigger studies are needed to show if reduction in coronary deposits leads to fewer heart deaths. — Richard Knox

Azerbaijan Investigates Bird Flu Deaths

March 14, 2006 — The World Health Organization (WHO) reports five deaths from possible bird flu in Azerbaijan. If confirmed, these will be the first human cases of Asian bird flu in a former Soviet nation.

The WHO says three Azeri women who've died since Feb. 23 were infected with a so-called H5 bird flu virus. Azerbaijan officials say they died of the H5N1 Asian bird virus called. But WHO is waiting for definitive results.

Tests are pending on two other cases from Azerbaijan — two teenagers from the same family. They died last week.

All but one of the deaths involved people from wetlands in southern Azerbaijan bordering the Caspian Sea, near Iran. Wild birds are known to be infected with the Asian bird flu virus there, and poultry are believed to have caught the disease. — Richard Knox

Two Blood-Thinners Prove Effective Against Recurrent Heart Attacks

March 14, 2006 — New studies involving 40,000 patients show that two different blood-thinners can reduce deaths and recurrent heart attacks among patients with severe heart problems.

The results will help doctors treat patients with chest pain and possible heart attack.

Most of these patients have partial obstruction in a coronary artery. One study compared the use of two anti-clotting drugs. They were equally good at preventing coronary blood clots. But patients on the drug fondaparinux were much less likely to have major bleeding than those taking enoxaparin. Fondaparinux patients were more likely to be alive six months later.

The second study compared enoxaparin with a blood-thinner called heparin in heart attack patients who'd been treated with a clot-busting drug. This time enoxaparin was more effective in preventing deaths and recurrent heart attack.

Both studies were presented at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology. — Richard Knox

Mad Cow Disease Detected in Alabama

March 14, 2006 — An Alabama cow has tested positive for mad cow disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Monday. Over the weekend, agriculture officials had said test results on the cow were inconclusive.

This is the third case of mad cow disease detected in this country. The first was in 2003 in an animal imported from Canada. The second occurred last summer in a cow in Texas.

The USDA's chief veterinarian says the Alabama cow had not been able to walk, and had been euthanized by a local veterinarian. A preliminary test suggested the cow might have mad cow disease. Follow-up testing has confirmed that, although additional tests will be performed.

Based on dental records, the USDA estimates the cow was 10 years old. That means it was born before new rules regarding animal feed, designed to curb the spread of the disease, were in place.

The USDA says the animal's carcass was buried and was not used for human or animal food. — Joe Palca

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