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Health Highlights: Feb. 20, 2002

Online Prescription Pushers Convicted Cell Phone 'Shields' Useless, Says FTC Report Chides States in Monitoring Birth Defects Kids' Vaccinations Don't Increase Diabetes Risk: Report FDA OKs 'Smart Bomb' Cancer Drug Doctor Convicted in OxyContin Overdoses Some Brain Tumors May Be Linked to Virus

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

Online Prescription Pushers Convicted

An Alabama couple has been convicted in an illegal online prescription drug operation that dispensed the impotence drug Viagra, among other medications, the Associated Press reports.

A jury found Anton Pusztai and his fiance, Anita Yates, guilty of selling drugs to consumers without prescriptions.

The drugs, which also included Xenical, Celebrex and Propecia, were sold from the web-based Norfolk Men's Clinic, which operated with a companion pharmacy in West Virginia in netting almost $55 million annually.

The couple was convicted on various charges including money laundering, mail fraud and Food and Drug Administration violations. The money laundering conviction alone carries a possible 20-year prison term.

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Cell Phone 'Shields' Useless, Says FTC

If you thought you'd play it safe with cell phones by purchasing one of the shields that claim to protect users from radiation, the Federal Trade Commission has some bad news for you: Not only do some of the shields not work as promised, but they in fact may cause the phone to emit even more energy.

The FTC announced today that it had filed charges against the makers of two such devices, saying the only "shield" at work is one of misrepresentation to consumers about the products' effectiveness, the Associated Press reports.

The two companies named in the lawsuits are Stock Value 1 Inc., of Boca Raton, Fla., and Comstar Communications Inc., of West Sacramento, Calif.

The FTC says both companies made false claims about scientific tests about their products, and it hopes to close both down once customers are given refunds.

In fact, says the FTC, there are no known products that reduce cell phone radiation exposure to users.

The coin-sized devices are designed to cover phone earpieces and were sold for about $20 each.

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Report Chides States in Monitoring Birth Defects

Most U.S. states are either flunking or barely passing when it comes to tracking and preventing birth defects, the leading cause of infant mortality in the nation, HealthDay reports.

The new "report card," issued today by the Trust for American's Health (TFAH), a new nonprofit advocacy organization, evaluated efforts to monitor, research and uncover possible causes of birth defects in the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Only eight states -- Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Texas -- scored "A's," and even they had room for improvement, the report says. More than half the jurisdictions earned a "C" or below.

Nine jurisdictions that have no program or minimal programs received the failing grade of "F." Flunkers were the District of Columbia, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

"States are doing a very poor job in tracking and actually preventing defects," says TFAH executive director Shelley Hearne. "States have the responsibility for gathering data, and most are not doing their jobs as well as they could. We need to create or improve state monitoring programs."

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Kids' Vaccinations Don't Increase Diabetes Risk: Report

The slew of vaccinations kids must endure in their earliest years do no increase the risk of developing diabetes or an array of other infections, says a panel of experts.

In a report issued today by the Institute of Medicine, doctors on a committee of independent specialists addressed concerns that have been raised about risks of various side effects from vaccines, reports the Associated Press.

The report cites surveys showing that about 25 percent of parents worry that infants' immune systems could be overwhelmed by the plethora of vaccinations they receive, making them susceptible to immune-related disorders such as diabetes.

While the scientists said there's still not enough research to say whether the shots increase the risk of developing asthma, they said research in fact shows that infants' immune systems are typically 1,000 times greater than what is required to respond to immunization.

"There's not a lot of support for those risks'' said the panel's chairwoman, Dr. Marie McCormick of the Harvard School of Public Health. "But the diseases that their children are being protected against are very real."

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FDA OKs 'Smart Bomb' Cancer Drug

A new kind of drug that uses a "smart bomb" approach to bring radiation directly to cancer cells has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Zevalin, known as a radioimmunotherapy drug, is the first of its kind approved in the United States.

The drug is meant for patients with a recurring form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- low-grade, or follicular, lymphoma -- who have not responded to other types of treatment. It involves radioactive antibodies that target a protein called CD20, which is found on lymphoma cells.

About 75 percent of patients with the hard-to-treat form of cancer saw their tumors shrink after a single dose of the drug, the Associated Press reports. In 15 to 30 percent of the patients, the tumors seemed to disappear.

About 55,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the FDA says, and about 65 percent of those suffer from the type of NHL that this drug is meant to treat. The disease, though slow-acting and commonly in remission for years, is ultimately fatal. Researchers say it's far too soon to say whether the new drug could extend a victim's life.

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Doctor Guilty of Manslaughter in OxyContin Overdoses

A Florida doctor was found guilty of manslaughter yesterday for prescribing a powerful painkiller to four patients who overdosed on the drug. Dr. James Graves, who led the state of Florida in prescribing OxyContin, faces 30 years in jail.

Prosecutors alleged that Graves, 55, brought in $500,000 annually by prescribing the synthetic opiate to patients, who allegedly returned to his offices repeatedly to feed their addictions. Graves testified that he was unaware that any of his patients abused drugs.

Some 24 pharmacists testified that they stopped filling prescriptions written by Graves, whom prosecutors likened to a common drug dealer. He is believed to be the first medical doctor in the United States convicted of manslaughter for over-prescribing OxyContin. He also repeatedly prescribed a "cocktail" that included OxyContin, a second painkiller, a tranquilizer and a muscle relaxant, the Associated Press reports.

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Some Brain Tumors May Be Linked to Virus

A common virus that usually lies dormant in as many as 70 percent of all children may be responsible for a particular type of brain tumor, BBC News Online reports. Medulloblastoma is the most common type of cancer to afflict the brains of children, the report says.

Researchers from Temple University found that children suffering from the brain cancer often were found to have proteins produced by the JC virus. But they caution that not all cases of the childhood cancer can be attributed to the virus. Their findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The two types of proteins produced by the JC virus were found in at least 65 percent of samples from medulloblastoma victims. One of the proteins, T antigen, is thought to block the actions of other proteins that suppress tumor development, the report says.

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