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Health Highlights: Jan. 16, 2007

Atlanta Worst U.S. City for People with Asthma Cleveland Clinic Sued Over Towel Left in Patient After Surgery Molecule Shows Promise in Treating Cancer Castro in 'Grave' Condition: Newspaper Report Canadian Pharmacists Seek Ban on Export of Drugs to U.S. Japan Confirms H5N1 Bird Flu Outbreak

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

Atlanta Worst U.S. City for People with Asthma

Atlanta has the dubious honor of being the U.S. asthma capital for 2007, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which just released its annual rankings of the 100 most challenging places to live for people with the respiratory illness.

Atlanta took the top spot due to its higher-than-average crude death rate (CDR) for asthma, high year-round pollen levels, bad air pollution, and lack of total smoking bans in restaurants, bars or workplaces.

Other factors were the city's high rate of poverty and the large percentage of residents without health insurance. Both of these issues are barriers to good asthma care, the foundation said.

Here are the 10 U.S. cities considered to be the worst places for people with asthma: Atlanta; Philadelphia; Raleigh, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Greensboro, N.C.; Scranton, Pa.; Little Rock, Ark.

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Cleveland Clinic Sued Over Towel Left in Patient After Surgery

The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio is being sued by the family of a woman who had a towel left inside her body when she had lung surgery in 1995.

The 27-by-18 inch green cotton towel was only discovered more than a year after Bonnie Valle died in 2002, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. She donated her body to science and the towel was found in August 2003 by a first-year anatomy student at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

The legal action launched by Valle's family against the Cleveland Clinic seeks more than $2 million in damages. A jury trial to decide the case was scheduled to start Tuesday, the Plain Dealer reported.

Lawyers for the clinic will argue that the towel did not kill Valle. In fact, they plan to have a doctor testify that the towel actually assisted Valle's breathing and may have helped her live longer than expected.

However, the plaintiffs' legal team have medical experts that will tell the court that Valle could have lived at least five more years if the towel had not been left inside her body during the surgery, the Plain Dealer reported.

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Molecule Shows Promise Against Cancer

A molecule called dichloroacetate (DCA) shows great promise as a treatment for many different kinds of cancer, according to a Canadian study published Tuesday in the journal Cancer Cell.

DCA has been used for decades to treat metabolic diseases in children. The University of Alberta study found that DCA can shrink lung, breast, and brain tumors in both animal and human tissue tests, the Toronto Star reported.

The molecule did not seem to have any harmful effect on normal cells.

The researchers said DCA appears to reverse changes that occur in cancer cells that make them harder to kill. By reversing these changes, DCA makes cancer cells more vulnerable to normal cell death programming, the Star reported.

DCA is a manufactured molecule that's widely available and is not patented by any pharmaceutical company. The study authors said that means that the molecule could offer extremely inexpensive cancer therapy, costing as little as a few cents a day.

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Castro in 'Grave' Condition: Newspaper Report

Cuban leader Fidel Castro is in "grave" condition, according to a Spanish newspaper report Tuesday.

The Associated Press reported that El Pais newspaper said Castro, 80, has had at least three failed operations and complications from an intestinal infection and that he faces "a very grave prognosis."

The Cuban government has released little information about Fidel Castro since he had emergency intestinal surgery in July and temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul.

Some U.S. doctors believed he was suffering from diverticular disease, which can cause bleeding in the lower intestine, especially in people over 60. In severe cases, emergency surgery may be required. The Spanish newspaper reported that its sources said Castro had suffered a bout of the disease.

"In the summer, the Cuban leader bled abundantly in the intestine,'' El Pais reported. "His condition, moreover, was aggravated because the infection spread and caused peritonitis, the inflammation of the membrane that covers the digestive organs.''

In December, the newspaper added, Castro had an abdominal wound that was leaking more than a pint of fluids a day, causing '''a severe loss of nutrients.'' The Cuban leader was being fed intravenously, the report said.

The report could not be immediately confirmed, according to the AP. A Cuban diplomat in Madrid said the report was a lie.

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Canadian Pharmacists Seek Ban on Export of Drugs to U.S.

Canadian pharmacists want their government to forbid the export of prescription drugs to the United States, the Globe and Mail reported.

The demand is a response to a U.S. Congress bill that would make it legal for American pharmacies and wholesalers to import approved prescription drugs from Canada and certain other countries, where the drugs cost less than they do in the United States. The bill would also allow individual Americans to buy drugs for their own use from Canadian pharmacies.

In a letter to Canada's health minister, four organizations representing pharmacists and drug distributors said the U.S. bill could have a catastrophic impact on Canadian drug supplies, the Globe and Mail reported.

"This American legislative proposal poses an imminent and serious threat to the security and integrity of Canada's drug supply, and hence a serious and genuine threat to the health and well-being of Canadians," the letter said.

The letter called for "an immediate ban on the export, both bulk and retail, of prescription drugs from Canada."

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Japan Confirms H5N1 Bird Flu Outbreak

The dangerous H5N1 bird flu virus has been confirmed as the cause of an outbreak on a poultry farm in southern Japan, according to the country's agriculture ministry.

About 3,900 chickens died on a farm in the Miyazaki prefecture (state) over the weekend. More than 8,000 birds were then slaughtered in an attempt to control the outbreak and all the dead birds were incinerated, Agence France Presse reported.

"The examination conducted at the National Institute of Animal Health confirmed that the bird flu virus detected in Miyazaki prefecture was the H5N1 strain," said a statement from the agriculture ministry.

Eleven other poultry farms within a 10-kilometer radius of the affected farm have been banned from shipping any chickens or eggs, AFP reported. Hong Kong has banned all poultry imports from Japan.

No human infections have been reported in this latest outbreak in Japan.

Since it first appeared in 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed more about 160 people worldwide. Most of those human infections have been the result of direct contact with infected birds. However, experts fear that the virus may mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between humans.

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