Polycythemia vera is so rare that just under 3 or so per 100,000 American men, most older than 60, are diagnosed each year with this rare form of blood cancer. Pseudobulbar affect, or PBA, is an uncommon neurological condition afflicting as few as 2 million Americans, causing them to experience uncontrolled, inappropriate bouts of laughter or tears.

What  links these two unusual maladies? Big Pharma hype: Both have taken starring roles in audacious and apparently successful advertising and marketing campaigns that have surprised even experts in the field.

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Photos:  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse,  Sen. Patty Murray,  Rep. Chuck Fleischmann,  Rep. Chris Collins, HHS Secty. Tom Price

The U.S. Congress, based on its members’ legally required financial disclosures, fares far better than most. Senators and representatives are worth a net $1 million on average. But is it seemly for so many of our crucial voices in the nation’s capital to be enriching themselves even more, with some trading stocks in areas—like health care—in which they also are legislating?

Politico, the website devoted to politics, deserves credit for digging into 21,300 stock trades lawmakers made in the last two years. Reporters found that 384 of the nation’s 535 members of the House and Senate had zero such activity. But a handful of lawmakers accounted for hefty dealing, with Mike McCaul, a Texas House Republican, racking up more than 7,000 trades.

Donald_Trump-1-225x300The Trump Administration raised major weekend alarms among some of the biggest players in health care with the president’s reported willingness to try a risky gambit by cutting off crucial federal subsidies to help millions of poorer Americans afford health insurance. Some in the GOP see the move forcing opponents to endorse the American Health Care Act, aka Trumpcare. But critics say it will cost millions their coverage and blow up existing insurance exchanges.

Politico, the website devoted to political coverage, reported that President Trump told his top advisers that he wants to cut off for this year $7 billion that Uncle Sam pays to insurers to reduce deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs so an estimated 7 million poorer Americans can afford health coverage on exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Trump is said to think this draconian move will push Democrats to negotiate with the GOP to support Trumpcare. But opponents say it not only will wreck ACA health insurance exchanges, causing insurers to flee losses from participating in them, it will not save money. It will force Uncle Sam to pay $2.3 billion more in other related ACA costs, notably some tax credits.

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Call it the million-dollar lie: Minnesotans are finding how costly it can be to allow vaccination foes to spread counter-factual misinformation in vulnerable populations. Doing so has helped fuel one of the North Star state’s worst recent outbreaks of measles among international refugees in the Twin Cities area. The highly contagious infection has swept through the state’s sizable community of Somali immigrants, felling several dozen children, most younger than 10 and all but two un-immunized.

Public health officials blame the disease’s surge, which they say has not peaked yet and has resulted in kids sick enough to need hospitalization, on anti-vaxxers’ exploitation of immigrants’ uninformed fears about American medicine, particularly modern science’s inability to explain precisely what causes autism.

To be crystal clear, no evidence or science ties vaccines to autism. But almost a decade ago, shortly after the government, churches, and nonprofits helped many Somalis—who were fleeing famine and strife in their native African nation and resettling legally in Minnesota—a public health scare erupted. The newcomers feared then that disproportionate numbers of their children were showing signs they were autistic. Health officials investigated and found no higher incidence of the developmental disorder.

thyroid-300x222Check the neck? If you’re doing so routinely, especially if you lack worrisome symptoms or haven’t had past problems, please reconsider: Regular thyroid cancer screenings received a “D” grade from a blue-ribbon panel of experts. The exams can cause more harm than good, says the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which does periodic, evidence-based reviews of common medical screens.

Its most recent review finds cause for concern that doctors and hospitals, pushed by a prominent patient advocacy group that Big Pharma’s helping to underwrite, keep recommending and subjecting patients to unneeded thyroid cancer screens. The screens, with ultrasound and physician exams, too often lead to more tests, and then to painful, invasive, and costly procedures.

Doctors worldwide are detecting thyroid cancer at increasing rates, with the found incidences going up by 5 percent annually in this country. But at the same time, the relatively small numbers of thyroid cancer deaths haven’t budged. They’re neither rising nor falling. (See the diagram).

IMG_1029-300x201Although critics—including the agency’s incoming chief—want the federal Food and Drug Administration to speed its approval processes for prescription medications, new research shows there can be significant risks in a go-go-go approach to Big Pharma oversight. Experts at Yale Medical School have found that a third of the drugs that hit the market with FDA approval between 2001 and 2010 suffered major safety issues that were only found after the medications became publicly available.

Of 222 drugs scrutinized by researchers, 71 were withdrawn or required public announcements about their previously undiscovered risks, including some that were slapped with “black box” warnings—one of the FDA’s most stern indicators a medication carries significant side effects.

The authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said the drug approval process is imperfect, and it can frustrate many because it can be time-consuming, taking years for a medication to go from lab bench to bedside.

maternal-300x170new investigation of one of the great shames of American medical care raises big questions about why labor and delivery is more dangerous to new mothers in the U.S. than just about anywhere else in the civilized world.

To their considerable credit, National Public Radio and Pro Publica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news site, have joined forces to examine why 700 to 900 American women die each year from pregnancy related causes, and 65,000 nearly die.

The news organizations say Americans are “three times more likely to die in childbirth than women in Canada, and six times more likely than Scandinavian women.” And while U.S. maternal deaths are rising, their numbers were plunging in developed countries from England to South Korea.

Apple-Juice-286x300For parents who struggle to ensure their kids eat right, news reports in recent days have offered some notable insights:  They may wish to pack school lunches with whole fruit, and be wary of youngsters’ over-consumption of fruit juices. They also may want to cast a skeptical eye on claims for “organic” milk.

And, even as school food programs seem to be making nutritional headway, moms and dads may need to keep a close eye on the lunch rooms due to Trump Administration policy changes.

Although many grownups rightly have sought to exile sugary sweet drinks, especially sodas, from youngsters’ diets, researchers say fruit juice should be substituted sparingly. It should be an occasional treat, not a big part of every meal.

vaper-300x112The Trump Administration has sent disturbing signals on whether it will keep Big Tobacco from hooking more Americans on high-tech, nicotine-addictive products—so-called e-cigarettes used, especially by the young, for “vaping,” as well as cigars and hookahs.

The federal Food and Drug Administration, almost exactly a year ago, announced it would crack down, in particular, on e-cigarettes, forcing their makers to submit them for regulatory approval and oversight. Uncle Sam also barred makers from targeting the young with certain kinds of product advertising and giveaways. E-cigarettes still cannot be sold to consumers younger than 18 and free samples are still barred.

But the Washington Post has reported that the administration is delaying key aspects of its rules on vaping, cigars, and hookahs so newly installed federal health officials can get up to speed in their posts.

nih_header-300x72Although its battles over health insurance have dominated the headlines, Congress also provided a glimmer of good news on funding for medical research. Lawmakers, at least for this fiscal year, shunned President Trump’s request to slash the budget of the National Institutes of Health. Instead of giving it the billion-dollar haircut the Administration sought, Congress boosted the NIH budget by $2 billion for the five months left in the current fiscal year.

The added fiscal support will be a boon for important research on: cancer, Alzheimer’s, precision medicine, the brain, and the battle against superbugs.

I’ve written how Congress earlier had, with much fanfare, decided to set aside partisan concerns to provide a steady increase in medical science research, which has been budget starved for some time. But the president had demanded cuts across the board, particularly so he could hike the appropriations for areas like the military and homeland security—notably his much promised border wall with Mexico.

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