Report Card on Flu

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a report card on last winter's flu season. It was milder and less lethal than usual, but it lasted longer.

The past flu season started late — around Christmas — but it ran for 18 weeks, peaking in March and lasting until almost May. That's several weeks longer than any other flu season in the previous five years.

But the U.S. flu season was relatively mild, compared to recent years. Fewer states reported widespread flu. And flu caused a lower-than-usual percentage of deaths, making up about eight percent of all deaths at the peak.

This season's flu vaccine protected Americans well. But toward the end of the season a new type of influenza-B virus emerged that was not covered by the vaccine. Officials say the B-virus predominated this spring, an unusual situation.

Next season's flu vaccine will have two new elements, reflecting new strains of both A and B viruses. — Richard Knox

Crisis in Emergency Rooms

June 14, 2006 — A series of reports from the Institute of Medicine finds that emergency care in the United States has major problems.

An independent panel of experts studied how people get to emergency rooms and what happens once they get there. Harvey Fineberg is head of the Institute.

"The emergency care Americans receive can fall short of what they expect and deserve," said Harvey Fineberg, head of IOM.

The reports found that ambulance services don't coordinate with each other well, and full hospitals turn away half a million ambulances a year. Most emergency rooms also don't have the proper equipment to deal with children.

There's no estimate for how many people are hurt as a result, because emergency departments don't gather those statistics. But the reports' authors say the problems are widespread and could be solved by better planning and more government dollars.

Waiting Period for Drug Ads

June 14, 2006 —The American Medical Association is asking drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration to wait for a period of time before advertising new drugs and medical devices directly to consumers.

Ever since the FDA loosened the rules for direct advertising to consumers, doctors have complained. They say that as a result of the advertising, patients lobby for prescriptions for specific drugs that they may not even need.

Now, the largest association of doctors says it will work with the drug industry and lobby politicians in Washington, D.C. for a temporary moratorium on the advertising of new products. It says a waiting period will give physicians the opportunity to educate themselves about new products before prescribing them.

The group says the FDA should decide on the length of the waiting period, and that the waiting period should vary by product. — Snigdha Prakash

Politics and the Morning-After Pill

June 13, 2006 — Lester Crawford, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, says politics were not involved in his decision to not approve over-the-counter sales of the so-called morning-after pill.

Crawford gave his testimony in a sworn deposition in a lawsuit filed against the FDA. Crawford in August of 2005 overruled career FDA scientists, who had recommended allowing over-the-counter sales of the pill, known as Plan B, to women age 17 and older. The medication would remain prescription-only for younger teens.

The lawsuit alleges that politics played a role in Crawford's actions. Abortion opponents consider the medication an early form of abortion, even though the FDA and medical groups classify it as a contraceptive.

Crawford, however, insisted that he made the decision on his own, and that it was based solely on concerns about enforcing the prescription requirement for only part of the population.

Crawford resigned shortly after he delayed the Plan B decision, under circumstances that have yet to be fully explained. — Julie Rovner

Coffee May Protect Liver from Alcohol Abuse

June 13, 2006 — Coffee may protect heavy drinkers from getting cirrhosis of the liver, according to a study by Kaiser Permanente.

Kaiser researchers looked at questionnaires filled out by more than 125,000 patients during the years l978 to 1985. They looked at how many were heavy alcohol drinkers (defined as three or more drinks a day); how many later developed cirrhosis of the liver; and how much coffee they drank.

Heavy alcohol drinkers who also drank more than four cups of coffee a day had one-fifth the risk of developing of developing cirrhosis compared to those who didn't drink coffee.

Researchers estimate that for every cup of coffee patients decreased their risk of cirrhosis by about 20 percent. But they're quick to point out the findings are not a license for heavy drinkers to simply drink more coffee. Heavy alcohol use also causes heart damage and dementia. And researchers say heavy drinkers should cut down or quit. — Patricia Neighmond

Wellbutrin Approved for Seasonal Disorder

June 12, 2006 — The Food and Drug Administration has approved a popular antidepressant for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder, a depression-like condition that hits as days get shorter.

Wellbutrin was approved in 1985 for the treatment of depression.

Seasonal affective disorder is usually treated with exposure to as much sunlight as possible, or with full-spectrum lights. With severe symptoms, some doctors will try any one of a number of antidepressants.

Manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline won FDA approval for Wellbutrin for seasonal affective disorder by doing clinical testing. People with a history of wintertime blues were given the drug in autumn, and were tapered off in spring. At the end of the treatment, 84 percent were depression free, compared with 72 percent of those who were given a placebo. The FDA says it's the first drug approved for seasonal affective disorder. — Joanne Silberner

Counterfeit Malaria Drugs Widespread on Asian Market

June 12, 2006 — Researchers say that up to half of malaria drugs sold in Southeast Asia are counterfeit. In the case of one Burmese man, the fake drug caused his death.

Doctors diagnosed malaria in the 23-year-old man and gave him a pill called artesunate that nearly always works. Several days later he died.

The case is reported in Public Library of Science/Medicine, an online journal. It's believed to be the first documented death from counterfeit artesunate, even though several studies show that 30 percent to 50 percent of the drug in Southeast Asia is fake.

Such deaths usually go undetected, according to Fecundo Fernandez of Georgia Tech.

"We are all realizing this is a severe problem because the fakes are becoming very sophisticated," says Fernandez. "It's not so easy to recognize them any more."

Fernandez' team analyzed the pills given to the Burmese man. They contained a small amount of the actual malaria drug. That can fool current tests used to detect fake drugs. — Richard Knox

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