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Health Highlights: Dec. 20 2002

Prescription Drugs Open to Tampering Acquitted Canadian Pot Activists Sell 'Medical Marijuana' on Internet U.K. Court Blocks Embryo Screening Many Troops Exempted from Smallpox Shots Schizophrenia Drug Approved for Suicidal Behavior Liver Cancer Treated Outside Body

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

Prescription Drugs Open to Tampering

Prescription drugs in the U.S. can make as many as 10 stops en route to local pharmacies and some are tampered with along the way, according to a CBS 60 Minutes report due to air Sunday.

What's more, if the drugs' manufacturers find out, they aren't obliged to warn patients or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the drugs might be unsafe, 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon reports.

After leaving manufacturers, medications pass through the hands of national distributors and pharmaceutical wholesalers, Special Agent Michael Mann of Florida's Department of Law Enforcement told Simon. And because manufacturers' prices differ, and depend on how much buyers buy and where they do business, there are numerous profit opportunities for re-sellers.

The drugs' long route through the largely unregulated system has carved a niche for criminals, Mann says.

Medications can be damaged simply by not being refrigerated over a period of time, or in the case of expensive medications, they can be diluted to increase profits.

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Acquitted Canadian Pot Activists Sell 'Medical Marijuana' on Internet

Two Canadian marijuana activists, acquitted yesterday on charges of selling pot for medicinal purposes, left court and immediately set up an Internet site that will sell and deliver medical marijuana to buyers across Canada.

As the pair are members of the Federal Marijuana Party, customers will receive income-tax receipts as if they made "a donation for political action," Marc St-Maurice, party leader and one of the accused, told The Montreal Gazette.

Last February, police raided Club Compassion, a Montreal location that supplies sick people with marijuana, and arrested St-Maurice and Alexandre Neron.

However, the judge ruled that the accused were providing pot to people who had the right to use it. Since the club's ailing patrons could not get marijuana from the Canadian government, the judge ruled that "a patient's right to life, liberty and security were violated."

Lawyers for the Canadian government, sent to court to defend the constitutionality of the country's drug laws, said they are still deciding whether to launch an appeal.

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U.K. Court Blocks Embryo Screening

A British couple's bid to select test tube baby embryos so they can have a baby to treat their seriously ill toddler has been put on hold.

A High Court judge in the U.K., ruled yesterday that under current legislation, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which regulates fertility clinics, lacks the authority to license the technique, the Associated Press reports.

The British Medical Association said if the law prevents embryo screening for tissue typing to save a sibling's life, then the law should be amended.

But the ruling was hailed by Comment on Reproductive Ethics, the organization that initiate the lawsuit. "With social sex selection around the corner and innumerable other designer baby possibilities on the horizon, today's judgment is particularly timely," a spokesperson from the organization said.

Many Troops Exempted from Smallpox Shots

More than one in three American military personnel scheduled to get a mandatory smallpox shot have been exempted because of medical reasons, the Associated Press reports.

The vaccination program for the military began a week ago, and of the 276 screened for the vaccine so far, 102 (37 percent) have been exempted, the AP says. Nearly half of those exempted live with someone who would be at risk for a side effect of the vaccine, which could be dangerous to recipients and those around them since it is made from a live smallpox virus.

Of those who have received the vaccine, no serious complications have been reported, the AP says. The most common side effect has been eczema-type skin reactions.

The military figures were revealed a day after a Harvard University poll found that many Americans are confused over the nature of the smallpox threat. The poll results, published on the Web site of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that a majority of respondents believe that smallpox still occurs naturally throughout the world.

In fact, the disease was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. The only remaining samples, until fairly recently, were believed held by scientific laboratories. Now, it is feared that terrorists or rogue nations may have obtained some of the samples.

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Schizophrenia Drug Approved for Suicidal Behavior

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the anti-psychotic drug Clozaril (clozapine) to treat recurrent suicidal behavior among schizophrenics.

The drug, produced by Novartis, was first approved as a treatment for schizophrenia in 1989. The new approval allows the drug to be marketed and prescribed specifically to treat suicidal tendencies among those with the disease.

The brain disorder affects about 1 of every 100 Americans, the FDA says. Some 20 percent to 40 percent of schizophrenic patients attempt suicide.

The approval follows two years of clinical trials that compared patients on Clozaril with those on a drug from the same family, olanzapine. Among the 980 participants, those on Clozaril made fewer suicide attempts and required fewer hospitalizations for suicidal tendencies.

Clozaril does have a dangerous side effect -- it puts those who take it at risk of a dangerous blood disorder called agranulocytosis. The FDA says frequent blood tests are necessary to check for the condition.

About 3,600 suicides each year in the United States are associated with schizophrenia, the FDA says.

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