November 26, 2004

Health Highlights: November 26, 2004

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

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Arguments

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will begin hearing arguments in a case that will decide whether patients in 11 states can legally use marijuana for medical reasons.

The court has to decide whether states have the power to allow the use of drugs that are banned by the federal government, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont and Washington all have laws that allow the use of medical marijuana, which can't be sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.

The Bush Administration contends that such laws violate federal drug laws and that there is no medical value in marijuana.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled against clubs that distributed medical marijuana. But that decision didn't cover whether the federal government could prevent states from establishing their own laws regarding the use of medical marijuana.


China Approves Human Test of AIDS Vaccine

The Chinese government has approved human clinical trials of an experimental AIDS vaccine. The government also said it would speed up approvals of new drugs to fight AIDS.

State Television said that 30 volunteers aged 18 to 50 would take part in this first test, designed to test the safety of the vaccine. More details about the test are to be released later, Ireland Online reported.

The vaccine was developed by Chinese scientists who have been studying the genetics of the AIDS virus since 1996. The vaccine was injected into a monkey and there were no abnormal reactions.

Health experts say that China could have 10 million HIV-infected people by 2010 unless it takes urgent action to halt the spread of the virus.


Fla. Voters Approve Three-Strikes Law for Docs

Florida doctors who suffer three malpractice judgments will automatically lose their medical license under a new law approved by voters in that state.

The three-strikes law could result in a deluge of malpractice suits, some legal experts warned. And doctors charge it could scare doctors away from Florida and force some doctors to concede to quick malpractice settlements in order to avoid having a incur a malpractice "strike," the Associated Press reported.

"It has branded the state as probably the most unfriendly state for physicians," Dr. Robert Yelverton, a Tampa obstetrician and gynecologist, told the AP.


Flu Activity Low So Far

It's still early in the influenza season, but government experts say that the activity of the deadly virus is off to a slow start.

Experts are still crossing their fingers in light of the nationwide flu vaccine shortage, but so far only Delaware and New York are experiencing what they call "significant" activity, according to the Associated Press -- and even then, significant is relative.

"From the data that we see, things haven't really taken off -- it's continued flu activity at low levels in a lot of places," Lynnette Brammer, a flu epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the wire service. "It looks like New York, the mid-Atlantic area, is where things are starting to pick up, but it's early. At this point, you can't tell how the season's going to progress."

Delaware is the only state to have what the CDC calls "widespread" flu activity. However, the state meets that definition only because influenza was reported in each county. There are only six counties in the First State, and only a total of six cases, according to the AP.

New York has what the CDC calls "regional" activity because of sporadic outbreaks in nursing homes. The flu season typically runs from October through March, with January usually being the month with the highest activity. However, last year the season got off to an early start, prompting runs on the vaccine, and declined substantially by January.

Nearly half of the nation's expected 100 million doses of vaccine was cut off after British authorities halted production of a major manufacturer, Chiron Corp., citing contamination problems.


Probe Sought on Charges FDA Discredited Whistleblower

The head of the Senate Finance Committee called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to launch a probe of allegations that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration went out of its way to discredit a whistleblower.

Tom Devine of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project said that the FDA insider, David Graham, contacted him some weeks ago about how to get word to the public about the dangers of the prescription drug Vioxx. Soon after, Devine received anonymous calls questioning Graham's credibility, the Washington Post reported.

"If these allegations indeed have merit, it appears that these activities may have been coordinated by FDA management and may have involved the misuse of government resources, including government property and time." Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel's chairman, wrote in a letter to the department. Grassley is seeking an investigation by the agency's inspector general.

Graham testified before the panel last week that he had raised concerns early about Vioxx, the painkiller that was withdrawn in September after it was tied to a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. He also said that the safety of five other drugs the FDA approved should be looked at.


Flame Retardant Found in Great Lakes

A flame retardant that's now illegal in many countries is showing up in places from Great Lakes fish to food at the grocery store and even in breast milk, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are commonly used chemicals that are added to plastics in such products as computers, televisions, carpets, and furniture. The research team found that Lake Michigan's top predator fish, coho and chinook salmon, contain PBDEs at concentrations exceeding 100 parts per billion.

"These are among the highest levels measured to date in open water fish anywhere in the world," Jon Manchester of the University of Wisconsin Water Science and Engineering Laboratory Manchester, said in a statement.

Other studies have found PBDEs in predator fish in each of the other four Great Lakes. The team also found PBDEs in several types of foraging fish like alewife, sculpin, chubs, and smelt.

If these trends continue, the researchers said in a statement, PBDEs will eventually become the main contaminants in the sediment. Studies by other researchers have found PBDE contamination in the breast milk of U.S. women at levels up to 20 times higher than in European women. High levels were also detected in supermarket foods, notably meat and seafood. Studies in mice and rats suggest that chronic exposure to PBDEs may damage the liver and thyroid.