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Health Highlights: Aug. 26, 2006

West Nile Virus Hits Western U.S. States Particularly HardNew Trial Ordered for Painkiller Doctor Gerald Ford Has Angioplasty Millions of Americans Uninsured for Years Severe Reactions May Require Two Doses of Epinephrine HIV Drug May Prevent Cervical CancerNew California Plan Provides Drug Discounts

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

West Nile Virus Hits Western U.S. States Particularly Hard

Living up to the first part of its name, the West Nile virus is making its presence felt this year largely in the western part of the United States.

The state with the dubious distinction of having the most cases of the mosquito-borne disease is Idaho, the Associated Press reports. That state's 116 human cases with 2 deaths has prompted the governor to order emergency nighttime spraying to control the mosquito population.

Texas has had the most fatalities -- six -- with 68 reported cases, according to CDC statistics. In all, 581 human cases of West Nile virus had been reported this year with 19 fatalities.

Why the trend westward? West Nile was first reported in the United States in 1999 in the New York City metropolitan area. Scientists theorize that birds -- which are the primary target for mosquitoes carrying the virus -- gradually build an immunity and have done so in the eastern part of the country, the A.P. reports.

This year will probably be worse than 2005, the wire service reports, CDC officials as saying, because the summer has been hot, and mosquitoes are more active in hot weather.

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New Trial Ordered for Painkiller Doctor

A northern Virginia doctor's conviction on federal drug conspiracy charges has been overturned, continuing a national debate over the discretion a physician has in prescribing pain drugs.

The Washington Post reports that a federal appeals court threw out the conviction of Dr. William E. Hurwitz Aug. 25, and this may bring about another trial for Hurwitz, whom prosecutors said was negligent in prescribing drugs like the powerful painkiller such as OxyContin. Hurwitz sometimes prescribed as many as 1,600 pills a day, the government alleged.

The jury had found Hurwitz guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

While acknowledging that the evidence was "strongly indicative of a doctor acting outside the bounds of accepted medical practice," the Appeals Court said the jury had been denied the opportunity to decide whether Hurwitz had acted in good faith by conducting his practice the way he did, according to the Post.

This had been the basis of his appeal, which was supported by a number of groups that were concerned about courts placing unnecessary limits on a doctor's method of practicing medicine. The Post quotes Hurwitz's attorney Marvin D. Miller as saying Hurwitz "believed what he was doing was helping patients with their pain."

The newspaper reported the prosecution was weighing its options on whether to appeal or re-prosecute.

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Gerald Ford Has Angioplasty

Former U.S. President Gerald Ford, 93, had an artery-clearing procedure called angioplasty Thursday at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the Associated Press reported.

During the procedure, a balloon is inflated inside clogged arteries to open up the vessels. In Ford's case, wire mesh tubes called stents also were placed in two coronary arteries to increase blood flow, said a statement released by his spokeswoman, Penny Circle. She said Ford was resting comfortably in his hospital room.

John Murphy, a Mayo Clinic spokesman, confirmed that Ford had angioplasty but did not provide details, the AP reported.

On Monday, Ford had surgery to implant a heart pacemaker. He's been at the Mayo Clinic since Aug. 15, when he was admitted for what were said to be tests and evaluation.

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Millions of Americans Uninsured for Years

Nearly 17 million Americans under age 65 were without health insurance continuously for at least four years (2001-2004), says a report released Friday by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Of those people, 38 percent were Hispanic, the report noted.

Additional findings from the report included:

  • About 16 percent (6 million) of the 39 million Hispanics under age 65 in the United States had no private health insurance or public coverage at any time between 2001 and 2004.
  • The poorest people in the United States accounted for nearly one of every four long-term uninsured cases.
  • Nearly one in 10 Americans under age 65 in fair or poor health was uninsured for at least four years.
  • Adults aged 18 to 24 were most likely to be continuously uninsured. About 10 percent of the people in this age group had no coverage.

A second AHRQ report that looked at a shorter time frame (the first half of 2005) found that nearly 50 million Americans under age 65 did not have health insurance. Of those, 29 percent were Hispanic.

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Severe Reactions May Require Two Doses of Epinephrine

One dose of epinephrine may not be enough to save the lives of people with severe allergies, says a coroner in Quebec, Canada.

Coroner Jacques Ramsay was investigating the case of 61-year-old Pierre Drolet, who was stung by a wasp. Drolet gave himself a shot of epinephrine but still died due to a severe allergic reaction, CBC News reported.

In his inquest's final report, Ramsay said a second shot of epinephrine may have saved Drolet's life.

"In a third of cases similar to Monsieur Drolet, we know that one injection will not be enough, and a person may need another injection," Ramsay said. "Therefore, I think it would be very wise [for people with severe allergies] to carry with them two injections rather than one."

There were other factors in Drolet's death, Ramsay noted. He said Drolet was taking heart medication that interfered with epinephrine and the ambulance took too long to reach Drolet.

A Montreal allergy expert noted another possible factor -- Drolet's epinephrine supply had expired, CBC News reported.

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HIV Drug May Prevent Cervical Cancer

The antiviral drug lopinavir -- commonly used to treat HIV -- could be used to prevent cervical cancer, say researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K.

They found that the oral drug also attacks the virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer. They suggest that a pessary or cream form of lopinavir that's applied to the cervix could help women infected with HPV avoid surgery to remove early cervical cancer, BBC News reported.

Vaccines for cervical cancer are already being developed, but these would only protect people who haven't yet been infected by HPV, the researchers said.

In a laboratory study, the team found that small doses of liquid lopinavir selectively killed HPV-infected cervical cancer cells. Their findings appear in the journal Antiviral Therapy.

The researchers plan to conduct human clinical trials of a lopinavir cream or pessary treatment, according to BBC News.

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New California Plan Provides Drug Discounts

Uninsured, lower-income California residents will get discounts of up to 40 percent on name-brand drugs under an agreement reached this week by legislative Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The California Prescription Drug Initiative provides enrollees with discounts of about 60 percent on generic drugs and about 40 percent on name-brand drugs. The annual enrollment fee will be $10, the Associated Press reported.

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