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Health Highlights: Dec. 21 , 2002

Airline Passengers Win, Lose Right to Sue Over Blood Clots Medicare Payments to Docs to Be Cut 4.4 Percent Herbal Tranquilizer Banned in the U.K. FDA Details Red Cross Blood Safety Lapses Prescription Drugs Open to Tampering

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

Airline Passengers Win, Lose Right to Sue Over Blood Clots

Airline passengers seeking to sue over blood clots that reportedly develop from sitting in an airline seat have just been given a mixed verdict from the courts in virtually identical cases.

An Australian judge yesterday gave a group of plaintiffs the right to sue airlines for damages, while on the same day a London judge decided the plaintiffs cannot try to make the airlines pay, according to the BBC .

In a suit against 27 airlines, the U.K. families had claimed the airlines failed to warn them of the risks of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on long-haul flights. The British High Court landmark ruling found that the blood clots, often referred to as "traveller's thrombosis," do not constitute an "accident" under the Warsaw convention. The 1929 treaty makes airlines liable for damages only in the case of an accident.

The ruling came only hours after the Australian courts decided DVT victims could sue the airlines under the same treaty.

The case involved 59-year-old Brian Povey, who had taken both Qantas and BA to court, claiming he was hospitalized and forced to give up work after developing DVT from a three-day business trip from Sydney to London. The full case -- involving 500 claimants -- is now expected to go ahead next year.

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Medicare Payments to Docs to Be Cut 4.4 Percent

Medicare payments to doctors would be cut 4.4 percent next year, after a 5.4 percent cut this year, the Bush Administration has announced.

Federal officials predicted that doctors would, as a result, be less willing to accept new Medicare patients, The New York Times reports.

If the cuts are not reversed, Congress and the administration will face the wrath of two politically potent constituencies, elderly voters and doctors who care for the elderly. But administration officials are desperately trying to control federal health costs, which they see as a major factor that contributes to federal budget deficits.

Outraged doctors faulted both Congress and the administration for failing to avert the cuts, which start on March 1.

And the Department of Health and Human Services said the cuts might "cause fewer physicians to accept new Medicare patients" and could prompt doctors to increase their charges to some of the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries, the Times reports.

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Herbal Tranquilizer Banned in U.K.

Britain's top health officials are banning the sale of remedies containing the herb Kava-kava after it was linked to four deaths.

The herbal medicine, used as a natural tranquilizer, was voluntarily removed from the shelves a year ago after almost 70 cases of suspected liver damage associated with it were reported, according to the BBC.

The UK's Committee on Safety of Medicines and the Medicines Commission have now recommended a ban, which will be enacted on Jan. 13 and reviewed in two years' time.

Health officials said their investigations had been unable to determine what might put people at risk of adverse reactions to Kava-kava or how it damages the liver.

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FDA Details Red Cross Blood Safety Lapses

More than 200 safety violations by the blood-collecting unit of the Red Cross have been found, according to the U.S. government.

The Food and Drug Administration said it was investigating further to determine whether any patients had received contaminated blood from the Red Cross, which provides 45 percent of the nation's blood supply, according to an Associated Press report.

"The blood supply is not as safe as it should be," said FDA commissioner Dr. Mark B. McClellan, after issuing a preliminary report on safety violations at the Red Cross biomedical headquarters. "I am troubled by apparent lapses in blood safety."

Specifically, the FDA said: some Red Cross employees had been instructed to skip required safety steps; others had altered records to allow distribution of blood that failed safety testing; the Red Cross failed to screen out some people who were not supposed to give blood. Also in one region, donors who were found unsuitable were not listed in a donor-deferral registry, as required. Some donated blood in other regions, the FDA said, and it does not know what happened to their donated blood. More than 1,000 units of blood were unaccounted for.

The Red Cross acknowledged problems and said it was working hard to improve safety.

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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 tomorrow.

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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