Health Highlights: Dec. 19, 2005

U.S. Customs Seizes Fake Tamiflu Assisted-Suicide Group Allowed into Swiss Hospital Panel to Review Independence of Canadian Medical Journal U.S. Teens Smoking Less, Using Fewer Illicit Drugs S. Korea University Begins Probe of Stem Cell Charges Israel's Sharon Termed Fine After Mild Stroke

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

U.S. Customs Seizes Fake Tamiflu

More than four dozen shipments of counterfeit Tamiflu pills were seized by U.S. customs agents at a post office in South San Francisco. Tamiflu is one of two drugs believed to be effective against avian flu.

The first of the 51 packages of fake Tamiflu pills, which were marked "generic Tamiflu," was seized Nov. 26 and the seizures continued through last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

"They were actually in containers that stated they were generic Tamiflu, but there is no generic Tamiflu, so that's a pretty big tip off," said Roxanne Hercules, spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

She noted that this is the first time that fake Tamiflu has been seized in the United States. The pills were shipped from China and had been purchased over the Internet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is testing the fake pills to determine what they actually contain, the Chronicle reported.

Countries around the world are stockpiling Tamiflu in anticipation of a possible bird flu pandemic. The drug can cost as much as $65 for 10 pills.


Assisted-Suicide Group Allowed into Swiss Hospital

A Swiss hospital has granted permission to an assisted-suicide group to help terminally ill patients take their own lives in the hospital, the Associated Press reported.

Beginning in January, the Vaud University Hospital Center will permit the Exit society to help in the assisted suicide of hospital patients who have no hope of returning home.

However, the hospital will not admit patients whose only goal in being hospitalized at Vaud is to prepare to end their lives, a hospital spokesman said. He noted that the purpose of hospitalization remains therapeutic treatment.

Exit is already permitted to help terminally ill residents of Switzerland take their own lives in places such as a patient's home or a designated apartment. The location is dependent on local laws, the AP reported.

Swiss law allows passive assistance to terminally ill people who want to commit suicide. The Netherlands legalized euthanasia in 2001 and Belgium did the same in 2002. France allows the terminally ill or patients with no hope of recovery to refuse treatment.


Panel to Review Independence of Canadian Medical Journal

A panel headed by Jerome P. Kassirer, the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, will draft guidelines to help define the future independence of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The panel was requested by CMAJ editor Dr. John Hoey in the wake of a recent controversy about a story on the Plan B morning-after contraceptive pill, which is available without prescription in Canada.

A team of the journal's reporters learned that Canadian pharmacists were asking women who wanted the pill for detailed personal information, including sexual history, that was entered into a computer. The Canadian Pharmacists Association had asked the pharmacists to collect the information, The New York Times reported.

However, before the story was published, Hoey was told he could not publish it. That message came from Graham Morris, the Canadian Medical Association's executive in charge of publications. Hoey said it was made clear to him that the Canadian Pharmacists Association had complained to the Canadian Medical Association.

It was the first time in 10 years as editor of the journal that Hoey had been ordered to change or cancel a story, the Times reported.

In response, Hoey published a somewhat altered version of the story and also wrote an editorial describing this attempt at censorship and criticizing the Canadian Medical Association for trying to interfere with the journal's editorial independence. He also requested the outside panel.

After the story was published, the Canadian Pharmacists Association came under fire from privacy officials and withdrew its instructions to pharmacists to collect personal information from women buying the Plan B pill.


U.S. Teens Smoking Less, Using Fewer Illicit Drugs

American teens are smoking less and using fewer illicit drug but have higher rates of prescription painkiller abuse compared to 2001, says a U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse report released Monday.

The 2005 survey asked 49,347 students in grades 8, 10 and 12 at 402 public and private schools about their use of drugs, tobacco and alcohol in their lifetime, in the month before the survey and in the year before the survey, the Associated Press reported.

Compared to 2001, the 2005 survey found that lifetime use of cigarettes decreased two percent among eighth-grade students, declined 1.7 percent among 10th-graders, and dropped 2.8 percent among 12th-graders. Lifetime methamphetamine used dropped 1.2 percent among 10th graders and decreased 1.7 percent among 12th graders.

Lifetime use of marijuana decreased among students in all three grades from 2001 to 2005 and past-month use of marijuana decreased for students in 8th and 10th grades, the AP reported.

The report also found that lifetime and previous year use of steroids declined for students in all three grades, compared to 2001. Alcohol use in the previous year was down for all grades.

However, the survey found that 9.5 percent of 12th grade students reported using the painkiller Vicodin and 5.5 percent reported using OxyContin in the past year. That's a significant increase from 2001. The survey also found a significant increase among 12th graders in use of sedatives and barbiturates.


S. Korea University Begins Probe of Stem Cell Charges

Seoul National University officials have launched an investigation into allegations that stem cell pioneer Hwang Woo-suk falsified cloning research that had been hailed as a major breakthrough.

Hwang was questioned, his office was sealed off and materials in his laboratory were secured on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. Hwang's fellow researchers at the South Korean university were being questioned and their materials were also under review.

The investigation was prompted by charges that Hwang falsified embryonic stem cell lines he said were created using cloned human embryos. The research was published in May in the journal Science.

Hwang has acknowledged that there were "fatal errors" in his published study and has asked Science to withdraw the article. However, Hwang insists that tests on his stem cell lines will prove his team "has the source technology to produce them," the AP reported.


Israel's Sharon Termed Fine After Mild Stroke

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered no lasting damage from a minor stroke and should be released from a Jerusalem hospital Tuesday, his doctors said.

"He looks fine, feels fine and wants to go home," Yair Barenboim, director-general of Hadassah Hospital's Ein Kerem unit, told a news conference Monday, according to Bloomberg news. "We hope to release him tomorrow."

Sharon, 77, had a blood clot Sunday that disrupted the flow of blood to his brain and caused some speaking difficulty, Tamir Ben-Hur, head of the neurology department at Hadassah, said. The prime minister never lost consciousness, he added.

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