Sunday, December 18, 2005

Avian Flu concerns spread worldwide

What a difference a year makes ... or not.

We head into 2006 the same way we began 2005: Worried about flu and not enough vaccine.

Last year, the concern was ordinary flu because the United States had only half its usual supply of flu shots. Bird flu creeping across Asia was a vague and distant threat.

This year, bird flu extended its reach, spawning fears that it might mutate into a worldwide super-flu that kills people, not just avians.

Countries scrambled to order an experimental bird flu vaccine and Tamiflu, the lone drug known to work against the germ, but both take achingly long to make and are in short supply. In October, the federal government released a plan to deal with a flu pandemic, relying heavily on low-tech measures like quarantine and travel restrictions.

"Right now the U.S. public should not be worried," because the germ doesn't spread person to person, Drs. William Schaffner and Tom Talbot recently wrote to fellow staffers at Vanderbilt University.

"Until the virus develops this ability, if it ever does, your chances of being infected are virtually zero. Leave worrying about this virus to the infectious disease specialists for now," they advised.

Amid the flu fears there was actually a lot of good news this year. Cancer overtook heart disease as the leading cause of death among Americans 85 and under. Why is that good, you ask? Because deaths from both are falling; it's just that those from heart disease have fallen more dramatically.

Two vaccines proved effective against human papilloma virus, or HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer, a big killer around the world.

New-generation cancer drugs like Avastin and Herceptin, which more precisely target the disease and leave healthy cells alone, also scored big victories in studies on lung and breast cancer patients respectively, notes the American Society of Clinical Oncology in its first annual report on cancer progress.

Five years ago, these drugs were in the "hope" stage but now are in wide use, said Dr. Roy Herbst, a lung cancer expert at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

In the future, "the goal is going to be to combine the targeted therapies and leave the chemotherapy and radiation aside," sparing patients the harsh effects of these older treatments, he said.

Meanwhile, the federal Food and Drug Administration continued to battle allegations that it has been too slow to act against dangerous products, and that political concerns were trumping science.

Despite advisers saying the drug is safe, the FDA has refused to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B, a "morning after" pill to prevent pregnancy.

A top FDA scientist quit over the dispute, and it held up Lester Crawford's confirmation as FDA commissioner. Two months after winning the job, he abruptly resigned amid questions about ethics and financial reporting. Federal officials are investigating.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle > Health

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