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Health Highlights: June 15, 2002

AMA To Discuss Residents' Hours, Dwindling Membership Groups Blast New U.S. Plan on Ephedra Soviet Weapon Mishap Caused Smallpox Outbreak New Arthritis Drug Shows Fewer Side Effects Feds Order Anti-Nuke Pills Hospitals Say Resident Work Restrictions Will Hurt

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

AMA To Discuss Residents' Hours, Dwindling Membership

Less than a week after a major accrediting organization for teaching hospitals laid down strict new limits on hours residents can work, the American Medical Association is set to take up the same issue as its annual meeting kicks off tomorrow in Chicago.

The rules, announced last week by Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, limit the average work week for residents to 80 hours and prohibit shifts of longer than 24 hours. They go into effect in July 2003.

The AMA proposals to also set down working limits for residents would be a first for the organization, reports the Associated Press, and would be in response to widespread criticism of overworked doctors-in-training and reports of sometimes serious errors that can result.

Also on the AMA's agenda will be a close review of reviving the organization's dwindling membership. The AMA reportedly lost more than 12,000 members last year in one of the steepest declines of a 20-year drop in membership.

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Groups Blast New U.S. Plan on Ephedra

The Bush administration's order to conduct a new wave of research on the safety of the dietary supplement ephedra is being blasted by consumer watchdogs, who two years ago called for warning labels -- and even an outright ban -- due to its risk of causing heart attack and stroke.

Groups including Public Citizen cited research, including a major study in the New England Journal of Medicine, that linked the supplement with more than 50 deaths and 1,000 complications resulting from use of the herb, which is used for weight loss and bodybuilding.

The group said that starting from scratch would be unethical, reports the Associated Press.

In a separate move, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday ordered six companies to stop selling synthetic forms of ephedrine that are disguised as the herb. Synthetic ephedrine has long been illegal. The FDA ordered a seventh company, meanwhile, to stop selling "energizing herbs" containing high ephedra doses. The mixtures are being marketed on the Internet as "legal speed" and alternatives to LSD.

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Soviet Weapon Mishap Caused Smallpox Outbreak

A Soviet testing of weaponized smallpox in the 1970s caused a small outbreak of the highly contagious disease, killing two children and a young woman and prompting the emergency vaccination of 50,000 people, reports the New York Times.

According to a new report, the outbreak, which Moscow never acknowledged, happened when a ship doing ecological research came within close proximity of deadly plume of smallpox germs that had been created by a military weapons test.

A crew member on the ship returned to the port town of Aralsk, on the Aral sea, and spread the virus. The outbreak prompted health teams to disinfect homes, quarantine hundreds of people, and administer the vaccinations.

Experts at the Monterey Institute of International Studies compiled the report, using formerly secret Soviet documents and interviews with survivors.

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New Arthritis Drug Shows Fewer Side Effects

A new anti-inflammatory pain reliever shows signs of giving popular arthritis drugs Vioxx and Celebrex a run for their money.

In a study presented last week at a conference in Stockholm, researchers said the drug Licofelone, being made by German pharmaceutical company Merckle, showed promise in helping people with arthritis in their knees without causing side effects that could lead to heart problems, reports the Associated Press.

Like Vioxx and Celebrex, the drug appears to be gentler on the stomach than traditional painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen, but could be a better alternative because Vioxx and Celebrex have been suspected to be linked to heart problems.

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Feds Order Anti-Nuke Pills

With threats of radioactive "dirty bombs" and nuclear plant attacks lurking, the federal government this week started stocking up on anti-radiation pills.

A total of 350,000 potassium iodide pills were ordered from the North Carolina-based NukePills.com, representing 9 percent of the company's business this year, according to the Associated Press.

The pills were ordered by agencies including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services the news service says.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security, said the pills are being stockpiled "in case of a nuclear event," and not in response to an arrest this week of Jose Padilla, a suspected al-Qaeda member believed to have been planning to detonate a dirty bomb in Washington.

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Hospitals Say Resident Work Restrictions Will Hurt

New limits on the numbers of hours medical residents-in-training can be allowed to work that were announced this week may backfire by substantially increasing costs, reports the New York Times.

The rules, announced by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which accredits major teaching hospitals, will go into effect in July, 2003, and limit the average work week for residents to 80 hours and prohibit shifts of longer than 24 hours.

The rules were designed to prevent overworked residents from making errors in caring for patients.

But some hospitals say the restrictions will force them to hire professionals at much higher pay to perform some of the tasks normally assigned to residents.

Dr. Peter Herbert, the chief of staff for Yale-New Haven Hospital, a teaching affiliate of the Yale School of Medicine, told the Times he estimates that the cost for some hospitals could run into the millions of dollars. "For academic medical centers, the impact is going to be profound," he said.

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