Health Highlights: Nov. 25, 2008

Nov. 26 -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Web Health Searches Often Result in 'Cyberchondria'

People who use the Internet to self-diagnosis health problems often mistakenly end up thinking they have a rare illness, according to Microsoft researchers who analyzed Web search results and surveyed 515 people about their online health information search experiences.

"Common, likely innocuous symptoms can escalate into the review of content on serious, rare conditions that are linked to the common symptoms," said study authors Ryen White and Eric Horvitz, Agence France Presse reported.

An example of "cyberchondria" is someone with a headache who concludes it's a sign of a brain tumor.

"A brain tumor is a concerning possibility when a searcher experiences headache. However, the probability of a brain tumor given a general complaint of headache is typically quite low," the researchers said, AFP reported.

"Such escalations from common symptoms to serious concerns may lead to unnecessary anxiety, investment of time, and expensive engagements with healthcare professionals," they added.


Epilepsy Drugs May Cause Skin Reactions in Asian Patients: FDA

Some Asian patients may suffer severe skin blisters and bleeding when treated with certain epilepsy drugs such as Dilantin, Phenytek and Cerebyx, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

Preliminary data indicate that people with a gene called HLA-B1502 may be at increased risk of developing skin problems when taking these drugs. Ten to 15 percent of people from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines may carry the gene, as well as 2 to 4 percent of South Asians, the Associated Press reported.

Doctors should monitor patients closely, but there isn't enough information yet to recommend genetic testing, the FDA said. Many patients who develop skin problems do so in the first few months after they start taking the epilepsy drugs.

Last year, the FDA recommended genetic testing for Asian patients taking the epilepsy drug carbamazepine after reports of skin reactions, the AP reported.


New Gout Drug Backed by FDA Panel

The first new gout drug in 40 years should be approved for sale in the United States, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended Monday.

Early trials of the drug Uloric found a higher risk of death and heart problems among patients taking the drug. But drug maker Takeda Inc. commissioned a larger clinical trial that found no difference in heart risks between patients taking Uloric and those taking the currently available drug allopurinol, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA panel voted 12-0 to recommend approval of Uloric for chronic gout. Though not required to do so, the FDA usually follows the recommendations of its advisory panels.

Gout, a form of arthritis that mainly strikes middle-aged men, affects about 5 million people in the United States. The problem is caused by a build-up of uric acid in the blood. Uloric reduces levels of uric acid, the AP reported.


Medicaid Paying for Unapproved Drugs: Report

From 2004 to 2007, Medicaid paid nearly $198 million for prescriptions of more than 100 unapproved medications linked to dozens of deaths, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data.

There's no data available for 2008, but the unapproved drugs are still being sold. Many of the drugs are used to treat common conditions such as colds and pain and date back decades, before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented stricter drug review policies, the AP said.

Unapproved prescription drugs account for about two percent (72 million) of all prescriptions filled by pharmacies in the United States, according to the FDA. Private insurance plans also pay for these drugs, the AP reported.

The FDA is trying to remove these unapproved drugs from the market, but conflicting federal laws permit Medicaid to pay for the drugs. Medicaid officials said they need help from Congress to resolve the problem, the news service said.

"I think this is something we ought to look at very hard, and we ought to fix it," Medicaid chief Herb Kuhn told the AP. "It raises a whole set of questions, not only in terms of safety, but in the efficiency of the program -- to make sure we are getting the right set of services for beneficiaries."

Federal payments for questionable medications are a concern when health-care costs are rising and about 46 million Americans are uninsured. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked the Health and Human Services inspector general to investigate the situation, the AP said.


Infrared Light May Hold Clue to 'Clarifying' Cochlear Implants

The cochlear implant, considered a miracle for its ability to give hearing to many deaf people, may be improved by the use of infrared light, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

Northwestern University scientists discovered that shining infrared light directly on the neurons in the inner ears of deaf guinea pigs helped make the translators of sound -- called frequency maps -- as clear as those in animals with normal hearing.

One of the difficulties with cochlear implants has been that human recipients have "frequency maps" that make it difficult to discern differences in tonal quality and background noises, and this can limit music appreciation and communicating in public places, the magazine reported.

Dr. Claus-Peter Richter, who headed the research team and presented its findings at a conference in Australia earlier this month, told New Scientist that there are a couple of challenges ahead.

The first is to evaluate the effect of the heat accompanying the light in the infrared process. Richter said his group is already taking a look at what the long-term effects may be from heating the neurons in the inner ear.

And the second project, he said, is to make fiber optics and lasers to target light in the inner ear.