Health Highlights: March 17, 2007

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

60 Million Units of Pet Food Recalled After Unexplained Kidney Failure Reports

A Canadian manufacturer of pet foods marketed under a number of popular brand names in North America is recalling 60 million containers of its "wet" cat and dog food because of unexplained kidney failure and some reported deaths.

The Associated Press reports that Menu Foods, headquartered in Streetsville, Ontario, has announced the recall of 37 cat food brands and 46 dog food brands, some of which are high end and others that are sold in giant retailers such as Wal-Mart and Krogers.

The wire service quotes company spokeswoman Sarah Tuite as saying the problem may have occurred when Menu changed suppliers of wheat gluten, a protein used in pet food preparation. An undisclosed number of kidney failures have been reported, and at least 10 deaths have also been confirmed, the company says.

Procter and Gamble, which markets the high-end the Iams and Eukanuba brands made by Menu Foods, already announced its own recall Saturday. According to the A.P., specific 3 oz., 5.5 oz., 6 oz. and 13.2 oz. canned and 3 oz. and 5.3 oz. foil pouch cat and dog wet food with products made by Menu Foods but sold under the Iams and Eukanuba with the code dates of 6339 through 7073 followed by the plant code 4197, have been pulled off store shelves nationwide.

Menu Foods has recall information on its Web site: http://www.menufoods.com/recall. And it also has a phone number for consumer questions: 866-895-2708.

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Railroad Gets Favorable Ruling Birth Control Pill Insurance Case

What isn't for the gander isn't for the goose, a federal appeals court has ruled in a lawsuit involving the Union Pacific Railroad and its deliberations as to whether it would deny paying for birth control pills as part of its health insurance benefits.

The New York Times reports that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has ruled 2-to-1 that because Union Pacific Railroad didn't offer health insurance coverage for any other type of contraception, it would not be in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act if it were to deny female employees insurance reimbursement for prescription birth control pills.

"Union Pacific's health plans do not cover any contraception used by women such as birth control, sponges, diaphragms, intrauterine devices or tubal ligations or any contraception used by men such as condoms and vasectomies," the Times quotes the opinion"s language. "Therefore, the coverage provided to women is not less favorable than that provided to men."

The class action lawsuit had been initiated because the railroad had been considering removing insurance coverage for birth control pills, which it now offers. Although it now has a favorable ruling, a Union Pacific spokesperson told the Times there were no immediate plans to remove reimbursement. for prescription birth control pills. "We're not going to take it away," Mark Davis, said.

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FDA Approves Drug for Rare Blood Disorder

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday that it's approved a first-of-its-kind drug to treat a rare blood disorder called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), which can cause disability and premature death.

The newly approved drug, Soliris (eculizumab), is a new molecular entity that contains an ingredient not previously marketed in the United States.

"This product is important in that it offers a treatment other than blood transfusion that may help this small population of patients who are often very ill," Dr. Steven Galson, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a prepared statement.

Soliris does not cure PNH, but treats the breakdown of red blood cells, the most common characteristic of the disease. Patients with PNH can suffer pain, fatigue, debilitating weakness, blood clots and strokes, heart disease and intestinal disease.

The FDA approval of the drug was partly based on a study of 87 patients that found that half showed stabilization of blood hemoglobin over 26 weeks. The study was conducted by the maker of Soliris, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc. of Cheshire, Ct.

Studies showed that serious meningococcal infection was a risk for patients taking Soliris, so the FDA ordered a boxed warning on the drug's labeling and said that all patients must receive meningococcal vaccination prior to being given Soliris.

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Indonesia Reports Another Bird Flu Victim

A 32-year-old man is the latest victim of bird flu in Indonesia, bringing that country's death toll to 65, the highest in the world, Agence France Presse reported.

The man died Wednesday in a Jakarta hospital. While officials said it's not clear how he was infected, they said he did keep a parrot at home. Most bird flu victims have had contact with sick or infected birds. The health ministry said there are no reports of other people with influenza-like illness in the man's neighborhood.

Also on Friday, the Southeast Asian nation of Laos announced its second human death from bird flu. The disease was confirmed in a woman who died earlier this month, AFP reported.

So far, the H5N1 bird flu virus has killed 169 people worldwide. Most of the victims were in Southeast Asia. Experts fear that H5N1 could mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between humans and cause a global pandemic.

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FDA Mulls Status of Copycat Biotech Drugs

The status of copycat versions of expensive biotech drugs in the United States may be placed below that of generic versions of chemical drugs, FDA chief Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach told drug industry executives Thursday.

He said the copycats would be considered only "similar" to brand-name biotech drugs and that the copycat versions would not be interchangeable, or able to be substituted, with the brand name versions, the Associated Press reported.

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In contrast, generic versions of traditional chemical drugs are identical to the brand name versions, which means they can be swapped or substituted for one another.

Biotech drugs, which are made from proteins taken from living cells, are generally more complex and expensive than chemical drugs, the AP reported. The FDA says it still lacks the legal and scientific frameworks to approve copycat biotech drugs.

"We recognize that the end point would be what could be best described as similarity. Similarity in the sense that when a doctor gives you the product ... it will achieve an effect that is similar to the effect that we expected from the innovative ... compound," von Eschenbach said at the annual meeting of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

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Rep. Patrick Kennedy Reveals Addiction to Painkiller OxyContin

Months before he crashed his car outside the U.S. Capitol last year, Rep. Patrick Kennedy sought treatment for an addiction to the painkiller OxyContin, the Rhode Island Democrat told NBC-TV's Today show on Friday.

After the crash, Kennedy checked into the Mayo Clinic in May 2006. At that time, he said he had already been at the clinic the previous Christmas for treatment of an addiction to a pain medication. He did not specify OxyContin as the cause of the addiction, the Associated Press reported.

On the Today show, Kennedy said he felt great in his recovery and said he was determined not to let addiction "take its toll on me ever again."

He spent a month at the Mayo clinic after the crash. After his rehab, Kennedy pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs. He's currently promoting legislation that would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses, the AP reported.

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