Merck & Co. has lost another Vioxx product liability case.
A jury in Rio Grand City, Texas, on Friday ordered Merck to pay the family of Leonel Garza $32 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Merck says it will appeal.
Garza died at 71 of a heart attack in 2001, after taking the painkiller for less than a month.
This was the sixth Vioxx case to go to trial, and the third loss for Merck. The company faces some 11,500 Vioxx cases in federal and state courts around the country.
Merck has said it plans to fight each case in court. Ken Frazier, the company's chief counsel, attributed the loss, in part, to the fact that Starr County, Texas, where this case was tried, is unfriendly to corporate defendants. Still, analysts say, the case was considered extremely weak for the plaintiffs, and the award was large, suggesting this verdict may foreshadow future losses. — Snigdha Prakash
FDA: Marijuana Has No Medical Benefit
April 21, 2006 — The Food and Drug Administration has issued a statement saying there are no scientific studies to support the use of medical marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have long supported this position.
But critics say the FDA is bowing to powerful political pressure. Seven years ago a panel formed by the Institute of Medicine, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that there is a role for marijuana in several diseases, such as to ease the nausea and weight loss associated with cancer and chemotherapy.
Nearly a dozen states have approved medical marijuana. But last year the Supreme Court ruled that federal authorities could crack down on medical marijuana use in those states if they choose. — Joanne Silberner
Midwest Mumps Outbreak Expands
April 21, 2006 — An outbreak of the measles in the Midwest continues to grow, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging students and health-care workers to make sure they have received two doses of the vaccine.
The CDC says there have been 1,100 confirmed cases of the mumps in eight states, with Iowa remaining the epicenter of the outbreak. It has affected young people between the ages of 18 and 22 — mainly college students or family members and others who come in contact with them. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding says vaccine programs are being started in the area, and the CDC is providing 25,000 doses to Iowa. — Brenda Wilson
Glitches Trigger Overdue Bills for Medicare Drug Plan
April 20, 2006 — Hundreds of thousands of Medicare beneficiaries have gotten letters warning that they haven't paid premiums for their new Medicare drug plans, and could face disenrollment.
The overdue bills aren't the patients' fault. Medicare officials say at least part of the problem is that the Social Security Administration has been slow to start to deduct the drug premiums from beneficiaries' Social Security checks. In other cases, billing glitches haven't been worked out.
The result, however, could be Social Security checks that have several months worth of premiums deducted at once, or bills for hundreds of dollars. Either could lead to a backlash against the program its backers just thought they'd overcome. — Julie Rovner
Genes Linked to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
April 20, 2006 — A series of newly published studies more sharply defines chronic fatigue syndrome, a sometimes mysterious condition that's difficult to diagnose.
There were many doubters when patients and doctors first started talking about a new disease with a broad range of symptoms, most notably extreme and debilitating fatigue. Over the past 10 or 15 years, however, information has begun to pile up.
Now a series of 14 research reports in the journal Pharmacogenomics describe an exhaustive study of 227 people in Wichita, Kan., who have symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Researchers found blood changes that explain their sluggish immune systems. They also found several sets of genes that appear to mark various symptoms. Researchers say the discoveries could one day lead to a simple diagnostic test. — Joanne Silberner
Medicare Drug Plan Enrollment Reaches Target
April 20, 2006 — Medicare officials say enrollment in the new prescription drug benefit has reached its target even before next month's deadline.
As of mid-April, more than 30 million Medicare beneficiaries are getting benefits from the new drug law, according to the latest enrollment statistics. Another 6 million have other drug coverage not subsidized by Medicare or are still employed, said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. That leaves between 6 and 8 million beneficiaries still eligible. They have until May 15 to enroll, or else they'll have to pay higher premiums.
Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have been urging that deadline be extended, something the Bush administration has steadfastly resisted. Congress is likely to take up the question when it returns to Washington next week. — Julie Rovner
Study: Mercury Dental Fillings Safe
April 19, 2006 — New research finds no evidence that children are harmed by dental fillings that contain mercury.
A few years back, scientists discovered that those silver-colored fillings in your mouth release tiny amounts of mercury into your body. The government became concerned that there might be a health risk. It sponsored two studies of children, the group most susceptible to brain damage from mercury exposure. In both studies, scientists compared children who got mercury fillings, with children who got fillings that contained no mercury. The studies went on for at least five years, and looked for differences in IQ. But neither found any difference. Researchers says the studies couldn't rule out the possibility that a very small number of children are especially sensitive to mercury. But they say the results are reassuring.
The research appears in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. — Jon Hamilton
Second Drug Found to Reduce Breast-Cancer Risk
April 17, 2006 — Preliminary results are in for one of the largest breast cancer prevention clinical trials ever conducted. The trial compared two drugs, and scientists say one was clearly superior.
In 1999, scientists launched a study of two drugs, tamoxifen and raloxifene. Both work by altering estrogen's affect on breast tissue. Estrogen appears to play an important role in the development of breast cancer. An earlier study had shown that tamoxifen reduced the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk for the disease. But tamoxifen has potentially dangerous side effects. The other drug, raloxifene, appeared more benign.
A total of 19,747 women enrolled in the study. Half took tamoxifen, half raloxifene. According to the preliminary results, raloxifene was just as effective at reducing breast cancer risk, but had fewer negative side effects. Tamoxifen is sold as a generic and by AstraZeneca under the brand name Nolvadex., Raloxifene, brand name Evista, is manufactured by Eli Lilly & Co. — Joe Palca