Health Highlights: May 7, 2007

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Plan B Not Always Available

The emergency contraceptive pill Plan B is not often prescribed by doctors and isn't consistently available in pharmacies, conclude two U.S. studies presented Monday at a meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in San Diego.

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved non-prescription sales of Plan B for girls and women age 18 and older. Girls under 18 still require a prescription for Plan B, which is designed to prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

    • Plan B Not Always Available
    • Pesticides, Nitrates May Boost Preemie Birth, Harm School Performance
    • U.S. Senate to Vote on Imported Drugs
    • Combo Children's Vaccine Effective and Safe: Study
    • J&J Halts Heart Stent Trials
    • Unknown Disease Killing Pigs in China

One study of 1,355 women undergoing annual gynecologic exams found that only nine percent of the 506 women using no form of birth control were given advanced prescriptions for emergency contraception, Bloomberg news reported.

"Doctors are underutilizing opportunities to increase awareness of emergency contraception to patients during annual gynecologic exams," wrote study lead author Archana Pradhan, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

"Even though Plan B is now an over-the-counter medication, health care providers still need to educate their patients regarding emergency contraception," Pradhan noted.

A second study included a survey of 1,085 drug stores in cities in a number of states with different laws. The study was conducted before the FDA approved OTC sales of Plan B, Bloomberg reported.

In Boston, no woman was refused the drug. Massachusetts requires pharmacists to provide emergency contraception. In four percent of cases in Boston, the drug was not in stock.

In Atlanta, nine percent of pharmacists refused to fill Plan B prescriptions. Georgia allows pharmacists to refuse to provide Plan B if they have a moral objection to the pill. In 26 percent of cases, pharmacists were willing to fill the prescription but didn't have the drug in stock.


Pesticides, Nitrates May Boost Preemie Birth, Harm School Performance

The date that a child is conceived has an impact on both their likelihood for premature birth and their later academic performance, U.S. researchers say.

Seasonal use of pesticides and nitrate fertilizers may be to blame, the Indiana University School of Medicine team add.

The researchers analyzed more than 27 million live births in the U.S. from 1996 to 2002.

They found that rates of premature birth were highest in May-June (11.9 percent of live births) and lowest in Aug.-Sept. (almost 10.8 percent). Pesticide and nitrate levels in surface water are highest in May-June, lowest in Aug.-Sept.

"A growing body of evidence suggests that the consequences of prenatal exposure to pesticides and nitrates as well as to other environmental contaminants is detrimental to many outcomes of pregnancy," researcher Dr. Paul Winchester, professor of clinical pediatrics, said in a prepared statement. "As a neonatologist, I am seeing a growing number of birth defects and preterm births, and I think we need to face up to environmental causes."

They also looked at Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP) scores from 1.6 million children in grades 3 through 10. The team compared that with the month the children were conceived.

Children conceived in June through August had the lowest ISTEP scores for math and language, according to the study, presented Monday at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.

"Exposure to pesticides and nitrates can alter the hormonal milieu of the pregnant mother and the developing fetal brain. While our findings do not represent absolute proof that pesticides and nitrates contribute to lower ISTEP scores, they strongly support such a hypothesis," Winchester said.


Combo Children's Vaccine Effective and Safe: Study

An investigational combination vaccine to protect children against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and polio was effective and well-tolerated in children ages 4 to 6 in a Phase III clinical trial, according to vaccine manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline.

The study found that children who received the combination DTaP-IPV vaccine had a comparable immune response and safety profile to children who received separately administered DTaP and IPV vaccines.

DTaP-IPV has not been approved for use in the United States.

The findings were to be presented this week at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.

"An increasing number of vaccines are being recommended to prevent childhood diseases, including additional vaccines at the 4 to 6 year-old doctor's visit. We are pleased to be developing a new combination vaccine that, if approved, could offer one potential solution to the problem of increased numbers of injections during single doctor visits," Dr. Barbara Howe, vice president of North American vaccine development for GlaxoSmithKline, said in a prepared statement.


J&J Halts Heart Stent Trials

Johnson & Johnson Inc. said Monday that it is halting ongoing clinical trials of its CoStar drug-coated heart stent and will stop sales of the stent in Europe, Asia and Latin America, where it's already been approved. The company also said it will withdraw its application for approval to sell the stent in the United States.

J&J made the moves after CoStar failed in a clinical trial against the Taxus drug-coated stent made by Boston Scientific, the Associated Press reported. After eight months of testing, the CoStar was found to be inferior to Taxus in reducing major adverse cardiac events such as heart attack or death.

The dose of the drug paclitaxel used on the CoStar was not effective. Paclitaxel is also used as a coating on Taxus, the AP reported.

CoStar is a product of Conor Medsystems, which was recently acquired by J&J. Development of the CoStar stent will continue, but the drug sirolimus will be used as a coating, J&J said.


Unknown Disease Killing Pigs in China

More than 300 pigs have been killed by a unknown disease that's spreading through Guangdong province in southern China, Agence France Presse reported.

The highly-infectious disease first appeared in the town of Silao about 10 days ago. Pigs with the disease stop eating, develop fevers and start hemorrhaging, according to Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao, AFP reported.

Affected farms and markets in the area have been disinfected and the transportation and slaughter of pigs has been banned.

According to experts, there is no risk of the disease spreading to humans, according to Ta Kung Pao, AFP reported.