Health Highlights: July 12, 2002

New Muppet to Have HIV, Say Sesame Street Producers High Tax on Cigs Drives Many to Quit Patient Exposed to Salmonella Dies Year's First West Nile Cases Reported Senate Panel Passes Generic Drug Bill Clinton Voices Regret Over AIDS Policies

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

New Muppet to Have HIV, Say Sesame Street Producers

The Muppets on "Sesame Street" may be wildly imaginary, but creators of the children's show are about to give one of the characters a very real problem -- an HIV infection.

The Washington Post reports that Sesame Workshop, which produces the show, will introduce an HIV-positive Muppet to its cast in South Africa, and a similar character may appear on shows in the United States as well.

Producers of the show say that by introducing the character, they hope to help "de-stigmatize" AIDS, promote discussion about it and provide a model of acceptable behavior toward those who have HIV, the virus that causes the disease.

A story line on the character's profile has yet to be developed, but the producers say it will likely involve the virus having been transmitted through a blood transfusion or childbirth. There will not be discussion of intravenous drug use or unsafe sex. The average age of the show's viewers is between 3 and 7.

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High Tax on Cigs Drives Many to Quit

The taxation of cigarettes to higher and higher levels appears to be having the intended impact of prompting many smokers to try to quit, reports the Associated Press.

Anti-smoking advocates say cessation groups around the country are reporting steep increases in enrollment, coinciding with increases in taxes. Programs at major health-care centers in New York City have seen memberships more than double since city and state taxes drove the price of a pack of cigarettes up to more than $7.

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Patient Exposed to Salmonella Dies

One of dozens of diners who came down with salmonella poisoning after eating at a Tennessee Red Lobster restaurant has died, and authorities are working to determine if the poisoning was the cause of death.

It's uncommon to die from salmonella poisoning and no details have been released about the victim, including age or gender, reports the Associated Press.

More than 160 people reportedly became sick after eating at the Red Lobster in the Hixson neighborhood of Chattanooga on June 21 or 22. The symptoms included vomiting, fever and diarrhea. Thirty-five of the cases have been confirmed as salmonella.

Authorities say they have not narrowed down what type of food may have caused the illnesses.

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Year's First West Nile Cases Reported

Three Louisiana men were diagnosed this week with the nation's first cases of West Nile virus this year, reports the Associated Press.

The men, ages 78, 62 and 53, all live in towns east of Baton Rouge. A spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they are the first cases reported to the CDC in 2002.

The virus, first detected in the United States in New York in 1999, has killed 18 people along the East Coast. Last summer, there were 66 infections and nine deaths, the AP reports.

West Nile is spread by mosquitoes from infected birds to humans. Symptoms of the disease, which cannot be transmitted between humans, include fatigue and fever. People with weak immune systems -- including the very young and elderly -- are particularly prone to developing deadly encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.

The CDC says people can help prevent the virus by wearing mosquito repellant and by getting rid of standing water, where the insects breed.

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Senate Panel Passes Generic Drug Bill

A Senate committee led by Democrats has passed a measure designed to make it easier to get less-costly generic drugs to the market, reports the Associated Press.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee voted 16-5 yesterday to approve the legislation. The bill would limit the number of lawsuits pharmaceutical companies could file for extending company patents and preventing rival firms from introducing generic equivalents.

Under present law, once a drug patent expires -- typically after 20 years -- a company can file suit to effectively extend the patent for another 30 months. Companies often file repeated suits, forcing virtually endless delays in introducing generics.

Under the bill passed yesterday, a drug maker would be limited to one 30-month stay for each patent filed within 30 days of a drug's initial approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Any patents filed after 30 days of initial FDA approval would not be eligible for the 30-month extension.

President Bush and some Republican lawmakers have voiced concern about the bill, saying it could hinder development of new drugs.

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Clinton Voices Regret Over AIDS Policies

Former President Bill Clinton regrets not having done more to prevent AIDS while he was in the White House, he told the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Clinton said he was mistaken in not supporting needle exchange programs to prevent transmission of the AIDS-causing HIV virus among drug users, reports The New York Times.

The former president urged world leaders, particularly those in hard-hit developing nations, to take a strong stand on AIDS and to help devise global plans to stem the epidemic.

Clinton called on President Bush and Congress to pay the nation's fair share of the world-wide effort, calling America's present commitment of $800 million per year insufficient. He said the United States should be spending about $2.5 billion annually, which amounts to "a couple of months of the Afghan war."

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