Mumps Outbreak in the Midwest

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating an outbreak of mumps in Iowa and beyond. Routine vaccination is usually protective, but not always.

The mumps virus causes fever and swollen glands. In an average year, five people in Iowa come down with it. So far this year, more than 500 cases have been reported. There have also been cases in several neighboring states, including 33 in Kansas and 43 in Nebraska.

The CDC is now reporting that two of the people sickened in the current outbreak took a total of nine domestic plane flights while infectious. So far no cases have been directly linked to the flights. But the CDC is advising health departments to report suspected cases to the agency, and asking health care providers around the country to be alert for people with swollen salivary glands. — Joanne Silberner

Mass. Governor Signs Off on Universal Health Insurance

April 12, 2006 — Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has signed a health-care law that aims to insure virtually everybody in his state.

Romney boasts that the new law is a possible model that other states can follow to provide health coverage. But he has vetoed some provisions, such as a provision that makes businesses pay about $300 per employee if they don't provide health insurance to their workers. Romney, who's expected to seek the Republican nomination for president, calls the assessment unnecessary. The Democratic leaders of the legislature say they have the votes to override Romney's changes.

The law's unique feature is a requirement that all individuals buy coverage beginning next July, if they're not insured through their jobs. But they won't have to unless insurers come up with health plans the state deems "affordable." A new state agency will define what's affordable, based on people's incomes. — Richard Knox

Merck Faces Lawsuit Over Osteoporosis Drug

April 12, 2006 — Another bestselling drug made by Merck & Co. is becoming the target of product liability lawsuits. Consumers filing the suits say they weren't warned that Merck's osteoporosis drug, Fosamax, could irreversibly damage the jaw bone.

Merck faces thousands of lawsuits in connection with its painkiller Vioxx.

Now, a lawsuit filed this week in Florida says the class of drugs to which Fosamax belongs has been associated for years with osteonecrosis of the jaw, or rotting of the jaw bone. The suit alleges Merck concealed the drug's risks and didn't adequately monitor the effects of Fosamax after it began advertising and selling it.

Lawyer Tim O'Brien, who represents the Florida plaintiff, is seeking to have the suit certified as a class action. He says some 10 million Americans take Fosamax, and he wants Merck to monitor their condition and warn them of the risks.

In a statement, Merck says not a single Fosamax user developed the condition in the company's extensive studies. — Snigdha Prakash

Jury Awards $9 Million in Vioxx Trial

April 11, 2006 — A jury in New Jersey has awarded $9 million in punitive damages to a 77-year-old man who suffered a heart attack after taking the painkiller Vioxx for four years. Merck & Co. withdrew the drug from the market in 2004, after a study showed Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks.

Last week the jurors awarded John McDarby and his wife $4.5 million in compensatory damages. Now they've awarded punitive damages after finding "clear and convincing" evidence that Merck had knowingly withheld material information from the Food and Drug Administration, and that the company had shown a "wanton and willful" disregard for the rights of others.

There are close to 10,000 Vioxx cases in state and federal courts. Five have gone to trial, and Merck has lost two. Analysts say the latest verdict is a sign that other cases may go badly for the company. — Snigdha Prakash

Group Seeks to Block Anti-Obesity Drug

April 10, 2006 — An advocacy group is asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a popular anti-obesity drug off the market, just as the agency is getting ready to approve its non-prescription use.

The drug orlistat, sold under the brand name Xenical, prevents the body from absorbing about a third of the fat in the diet. That helps some people lose weight. Last week the FDA indicated it's prepared to let the drug be sold over-the-counter, an indication the agency considers it safe.

But the group Public Citizen has petitioned the FDA to take the weight-loss drug off the market altogether. It says orlistat increased the incidence of intestinal abnormalities in studies on rats. Other studies suggest these abnormalities are the first step toward colon cancer in humans.

A spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, which expects to market orlistat over-the-counter, says 23 million people have used it with no safety problems. — Richard Knox

Contact Lens Solution Linked to Infections

April 10, 2006 — Bausch & Lomb has temporarily suspended shipments of its ReNu with MoistureLoc contact lens solution, which federal health officials have linked to a fungal eye infection that can cause temporary blindness.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are investigating 109 recent reports of potentially serious eye infections. Of the 30 fully investigated cases, most were associated with Bausch & Lomb's ReNu brand products. The government agencies are reminding soft contact lens wearers to keep their hands clean when handling lenses, and follow lens care guidelines. —NPR

FDA Clears RU-486 Pill in Woman's Death

April 10, 2006 — The abortion pill RU-486 did not cause the death of a woman in California, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Her death was one of two reported to the agency last month. The second remains under investigation. Both women died of infections. The FDA has warned patients that while there's no evidence RU-486 causes infections, they should seek medical care if they suffer stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhea more than a day after taking the drug. — NPR

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