Health Highlights: March 10, 2011

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

Adverse Drug Reactions Common Among Older Adults

More than half (51.5 percent) of U.S. emergency department visits prompted by adverse reactions to medications involve patients aged 50 and older, according to a federal government study.

Of the visits made by these older patients, 61.5 percent involve patients aged 65 or older and 60.9 percent involve women, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported Thursday.

Among the other findings:

  • Nearly 80 percent of emergency department visits by older patients involved adverse reactions to just one medication.
  • Central nervous system drugs, such as narcotic and non-narcotic pain relievers, accounted for the largest share of these visits (24.3 percent). Other types of drugs included blood modifiers, cardiovascular system medications, metabolic disorder treatments, and psychotherapeutic drugs.
  • Hospitalization was required in 32.9 percent of emergency department visits involving adverse reactions to medications among older adults. There was considerable difference in the rates of hospitalization for patients ages 50 to 64 (25.5 percent) and those aged 65 and older (37.6 percent).

“Individuals taking medications need to take personal responsibility and not assume that just because the medications are legally prescribed that they are without risk,” SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde said in an agency news release. “People should monitor how they feel when on medication, ask their doctor about what signs to look out for, and not hesitate to contact a doctor if they feel the medication is having adverse effects on their health.”


WHO Criticized for Handling of Swine Flu Pandemic

An expert committee says the World Health Organization made crucial errors in its handling of the 2009 swine flu pandemic and also warned that tens of millions of people could die in a future severe global outbreak.

The committee was established by WHO to review its efforts during the swine flu outbreak. The findings will be presented during a meeting at WHO later this month before being finalized, the Associated Press reported.

While it performed well in many areas, WHO’s handling of the pandemic and its phases was “needlessly complex,” and the U.N. health agency should not have kept secret the identities of pandemic advisory committee members, some of who had links to drug companies, the committee said.

It also said that under WHO’s supervision, the world can’t handle a major health emergency, the AP reported.

“The world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public health emergency,” the committee wrote. They added that “the unavoidable reality is that tens of millions of people would be at risk of dying in a severe global pandemic.”


FDA Panel Discusses Possible Risks of Anesthesia in Young Children

The possibility that the use of anesthesia in young children could lead to cognitive problems or learning disabilities was being discussed Thursday by experts on a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel.

The meeting was scheduled in response to a growing amount of research, mainly in animals, that suggests a link between anesthesia exposure and brain cell death or learning problems, said Dr. Bob Rappaport, director of the FDA’s division of anesthesia and analgesia products, The New York Times reported.

“We dont know what this means for children at this time,” said Rappaport, who wrote about the issue in the March 10 New England Journal of Medicine. “That’s why it’s so critical that we get all of the necessary information.”

The advisory panel will evaluate the available evidence, offer suggestions for further studies, and discuss whether the parents of children scheduled for surgery should be warned of possible cognitive or behavioral risks, The Times reported.

Research in monkeys and rodents has found that exposure to anesthesia at a very young age (the equivalent of younger than age 4 in humans) is associated with brain cell death. And a recent study found that 5-day-old rhesus monkeys exposed to 24 hours of anesthesia had lower scores on tests of memory, attention and learning.

“That brings into the picture the sort of proof-of-concept that these drugs can cause cognitive disturbances in juvenile animals,” Rappaport said.

It’s difficult to conduct controlled clinical trials with children, so most human studies have looked at whether children with and without learning disabilities had anesthesia when they were younger, The Timesreported.


Huge Price Increase for Preterm Labor Prevention Drug

The price of a drug to prevent preterm labor will increase next week from about $10 or $20 per injection to up to $1,500 a dose, which means that the total cost during a pregnancy could be as high as $30,000.

The drug Makena is a form of progesterone given as a weekly injection. It’s remained inexpensive because it was mixed in special pharmacies that custom-compound treatments not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Associated Press reported.

But the FDA recently granted KV Pharmaceutical the exclusive right to sell the drug. The move was supported by the March of Dimes and many obstetricians because it would lead to more consistent quality and wider availability of the drug.

However, many are shocked by the huge price increase, which will mean fewer low-income women will get the drug, resulting in more premature births. There will also be greatly increased costs for health insurers and government programs that pay for the drug.

“I’ve never seen anything as outrageous as this,” Dr. Arnold Cohen, an obstetrician at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, told the AP.