Headlines: December 9, 2010
by Meg Larkin
A number of children’s hospitals are struggling to pay for drugs used to treat rare conditions. Previously, children’s hospitals were able to receive large discounts on the drugs, known as “orphan drugs” that were intended for treatment of diseases affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the United States. The discounts were typically between 30 and 50 percent, and children’s hospitals are now having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more for these treatments. It is unclear why the orphan drug discounts were removed in the new health care law. Some lawmakers have said it was due to an honest drafting error, but the pharmaceutical lobby had opposed the discounts for a number of years. At the same time that the orphan drug benefit was removed, a new benefit was added that gave drug discounts to some rural hospitals and children’s hospitals, but it excluded the orphan drugs. The House voted to restore the discount for children’s hospitals, but similar legislation is stuck at an impasse in the Senate despite bipartisan support.
In research news, a new study has shown that Aspirin may reduce cancer risk. Aspirin regimens have long been used to lower heart disease risk, but a new study shows that “patients who took aspirin regularly for a period of several years were 21 percent less likely decades later to die of solid tumor cancers.” The study, published in the Lancet, looked at patients who previously participated in randomized controlled trials of aspirin. While the dose taken didn’t seem to matter, the people who had participated in the lengthiest aspirin trials had the most dramatic reductions in cancer deaths. While other studies have looked at aspirin’s effects on cancer, this is the first one to use randomized controlled trials. Patients are recommended to consult with their doctor before beginning an aspirin regimen.
In global health news, a new meningitis vaccine has been developed that could save tens of thousands of lives in Africa. The new vaccine was largely financed by the Gates foundation and developed outside of the traditional medical innovation pipeline. It relies on technology donated for token royalties by the FDA, and is being manufactured by a major vaccine producer in India. Developing the vaccine in this way means that it costs only fifty-cents per dose, compared to existing meningitis vaccines that can cost up to $100. The vaccine does not prevent all types of meningitis, but it is targeted to prevent the most prevalent strain, and unlike previous vaccines, it can create herd immunity in mostly vaccinated populations. The vaccine development was led by the WHO and Path, a Seattle non-profit.
Finally, a French biologist’s report has concluded that the cholera outbreak in Haiti likely originated with a group of U.N. peacekeepers. The report linked the outbreak to the peacekeepers because no other hypothesis could explain the cholera outbreak in a certain Haitian village that was not affected by the earthquake or located near the coast or the tent camps housing earthquake survivors. The report called for more investigation, better medical surveillance and improved sanitation for the peacekeepers. The report’s author could not prove there was cholera inside the base, but the report also suggested that evidence of cholera on the base may have been deliberately covered up. Previous reports had confirmed that the type of Cholera in Haiti originated in Southeast Asia, but there were other theories as to how it may have come to the country. Haitians have long suspected the peacekeepers were the source of the outbreak, and anger over the situation sparked riots earlier this year.
Meg Larkin is a third year law student at Boston University. Please feel free to email her with any questions, comments, suggestions or concerns.