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Health Highlights: June 20, 2002

Panel: Reserve Smallpox Shots for First Response Teams, Hospital Staffs Court Allows HMO Members to Get Second Opinions AMA Backs Resident Work Limits Contaminated French Cheese Recalled Genetic Tests Fail to Yield Anthrax Clues Virginia Man Charged With Knowingly Passing AIDS Anti-Abortion Efforts Fail Narrowly in Kentucky

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

Panel Recommends Smallpox Shots for First Response Teams, Hospital Staffs

A government panel has recommended that the smallpox vaccine -- not used in this country since the 1970s -- make a comeback to a limited, but potentially large group of people designated as the first to respond in case of a bioterrorism attack, reports the Associated Press.

After two days of hearings on the issue of whether to reinstate smallpox vaccinations for the general public, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices today instead recommended that states should designate and vaccinate teams of people who would be the first to respond in a bioterror attack, including doctors, disease detectives, nurses and law enforcement officials.

Under the proposal, states would also be allowed to vaccinate staff at hospitals pre-arranged to receive smallpox patients. The numbers of people receiving vaccinations could run in the thousands.

The advisory committee sets U.S. vaccine policy. Its recommendations are subject to the approval of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

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Court Allows HMO Members to Get Second Opinions

In a victory for patients' rights, the Supreme Court ruled today that a patient may seek a second opinion outside his HMO plan when a plan refuses to pay for treatment.

Laws allowing second opinions exist in 42 states and are designed to force health maintenance organizations to pay for treatments if independent reviews show that the care is justified.

HMO representatives had argued that they were not opposed to second opinions, but contended that a 1974 federal law overruled the various state laws and allowed for a what they said was a better system of one national standard.

But in a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that the state laws did not conflict with the federal law, reports the Associated Press.

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AMA Recommends Resident Work Limits

Just a week after a major hospital accrediting organization prescribed new limitations on the numbers of hours medical residents can work, the American Medical Association has voted to endorse such limitations.

Voting today at its annual meeting in Chicago, the AMA recommended nearly the same limitations set forth by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which accredits the nation's teaching hospitals.

According to an AMA statement, the recommendations allow for a work limit of 80 hours per week for medical residents, and for shifts to be limited to no more than 24 hours at a time.

The limits followed complaints of some residents working more than 100 hours per week and even reports of some falling asleep while performing surgery.

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Contaminated French Cheese Recalled

A batch of gourmet St. Nectaire semisoft cheese is being recalled due to possible contamination with a potentially deadly bacterium, listeria, reports the Associated Press.

The cheese is imported from France and is distributed in four-pound paper-wrapped wheels.

The recalled brand is called "L'or des Domes," with a production date of April 14 -- written on the packaging as 14/04/02, with a lot number of 0004114.

Recalled products were sold to restaurants, gourmet shops and distributors in California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Food and Drug Administration discovered the contamination. Listeria can cause high fever, severe headaches and nausea. It can be fatal to infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

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Genetic Tests Fail to Yield Anthrax Clues

High-tech genetic fingerprinting has failed to crack the case of who mailed anthrax-laden letters to government and media figures last fall.

Scientists had hoped that genetic matching could yield clues into which of about a dozen laboratories was the source of the deadly bacteria used in the attacks eight months ago, the Asssociated Press reports. Some scientists quoted by the wire service say they are becoming pessimistic about ever finding the perpetrator.

The scientists hoped to compare the DNA from anthrax at each of the labs with the DNA of the bacteria used in the attacks. But an expert quoted by the AP theorizes that the anthrax used in the attacks may actually have evolved slightly once it left the lab, making an exact comparison all but impossible.

Five people died during the attacks and thousands more were forced to take powerful antibiotics as a precaution.

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Virginia Man Charged With Knowingly Passing AIDS

An Alexandria, Va., man is among the first in the nation to be charged under a series of new state laws that make it a felony to knowingly infect someone with the AIDS virus.

The 32-year-old man was not identified to protect the person he infected -- his wife, the Washington Post reports. "Infected sexual battery" became law in Virginia two years ago, carrying a maximum penalty of 5 years in jail.

Several states began adopting similar laws in response to a 1997 case where a New York man deliberately infected 13 women and teen-age girls through unprotected sex. But prosecutors say such laws are rarely enforced, since victims rarely come forward. And if they do, the prosecutors add, it is usually very difficult to prove that tranmission of the AIDS virus was done intentionally.

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Anti-Abortion Efforts Fail Narrowly in Kentucky

Despite a big push by anti-abortion activists, Northern Kentucky health officials have voted to continue a federally funded reproductive health care program.

The Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Board voted 14-13 yesterday night to retain $170,000 in Title X family-planning funding, reports the Associated Press.

Hard-line abortion opponents had argued that commonly used contraceptives can cause the the equivalent of an abortion. Others objected because parents weren't being notified if contraceptives were given to teen-agers.

But chairman Greg Kennedy, in casting the deciding vote, condemned the practice of "mixing politics with medicine." The health board's jurisdiction includes four Kentucky counties that lie just south of Cincinnati, Ohio.

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