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Health Highlights: March 26 2006

U.S. Federal Appeals Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Case Carter-Led Initiative Eradicating Guinea Worm Disease Kidney Drug Can Safely Fight Eczema China Confirms Shanghai Bird Flu Death Sodium Hyaluronate Effective for Chronic Shoulder Pain: Study

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

U.S. Federal Appeals Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Case

On Monday, lawyers for a 40-year-old Oakland, Calif., woman will begin arguing a federal appeal against the Supreme Court's ban on medical marijuana, the Associated Press reported.

The appeal rests on a 'right-to-life' premise: that the woman, Angel Raich, cannot survive without marijuana, which she claims boosts her appetite and eases her pain from scoliosis, a brain tumor, and other illnesses.

"She'd probably be dead without marijuana," her doctor, Frank Lucido, told the AP.

The case is the latest salvo in legal attempts to undermine Supreme Court rulings that have consistently come down against allowing sick or dying patients to use marijuana to ease their pain or prolong life.

"There is no fundamental right to distribute, cultivate or possess marijuana," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Quinlivan, who heads the government's case, wrote in a statement to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Eleven states, including California, now allow the limited, medicinal use of marijuana. That has led to federal law enforcement officials conducting raids on "pot clubs" that distributed marijuana to patients living in those states.

However, in a footnote to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Judge Clarence Thomas said legal questions remain on whether Congress can meddle with state law, or whether Americans do have a right to medicinal use of marijuana.

The ambivalence expressed in Thomas' note is helping to drive this latest appeal, experts say. "A victory would affect people who are very seriously ill, facing death or great physical pain," Randy Barnett, a Boston University law professor working on the case, told the AP.

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Carter-Led Initiative Eradicating Guinea Worm Disease

A painful scourge caused by a worm that burrows under the skin has been nearly eradicated in the developing world, thanks to an initiative led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the New York Times reported Sunday.

Guinea worm disease is a water-borne illness that afflicted millions throughout the developing world just two decades ago. In 2005, however, health experts reported just 12,000 cases worldwide.

The disease is contracted when people ingest guinea worm larvae in water from tainted rivers and ponds. The thin worms make a home under the skin and can grow to over a yard long, eventually blistering through the skin and forcing the afflicted to seek relief in ponds, where the worm releases its larvae to continue the cycle.

Carter made guinea worm eradication a major goal of his Carter Center foundation back in 1986. He said he first saw the worm's horrific effects in Ghana in 1988.

"My most vivid memory was of a beautiful young 19-year-old-or-so woman with a worm emerging from her breast," he told the Times. "Later we heard that she had 11 more come out that season."

A mild pesticide can treat worm-infested ponds without harming drinking water, but local superstitions and mistrust of Western-led intervention have hampered guinea worm eradication efforts, especially in Africa. Drilling wells, or teaching families to strain drinking water through special sieves, can also help stop the disease.

Relentless efforts on the part of the Carter-led initiative have brought results, however, and health experts are hopeful that guinea worm will be the first infectious disease eradicated from the planet since smallpox. "I don't have any doubt that it will be eradicated during my active service," Carter said.

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Kidney Drug Can Safely Fight Eczema

Tailoring a powerful, immune-suppressing drug to individual patients may bring safe relief to adults and children afflicted with atopic eczema, British researchers report.

As reported by the BBC, The drug, called azathioprine, was first developed 40 years ago to help suppress organ rejection in kidney transplant recipients.

Doctors soon realized it might help subdue painful eczema flare-ups, but the drug's effects on the immune system meant that it has only been used as a last resort, and only in adults.

Now, researchers at the University of Newcastle say they have matched doses of azathioprine to levels of a particular enzyme, called TPMT, in patients' blood.

In a study involving 63 patients, this tailored approach gave patients several months of sustained relief, without major side effects.

"We have shown for the first time that, if we can get the dose right, the safety of the drug improves significantly," researcher Dr. Simon Meggitt, a consultant dermatologist, told the BBC.

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China Confirms Shanghai Bird Flu Death

A female migrant worker infected with the H5N1 avian flu strain died Tuesday in Shanghai, Chinese officials confirmed on Saturday. The death is the 11th fatal case of bird flu so far documented in the country, and the first in Shanghai, China's most populous city.

According to the Associated Press, Chinese health officials say blood tests confirmed the woman was infected with the bird flu virus. She was admitted to the hospital with cold and fever symptoms.

Also on Saturday, Indonesian officials said they are awaiting tests to confirm H5N1 infection as the cause of death of a 1-year-old Jakarta girl.

And in Hong Kong, a peregrine falcon found dead in a housing complex has tested positive for H5N1, officials there say. Hong Kong last reported a human case of bird flu in 2003.

So far, bird-to-human transmission of H5N1 has killed more than 100 people worldwide in eight countries, mostly in Asia. Health experts fear a pandemic if the virus ever mutates to a form that could be easily passed between humans.

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Sodium Hyaluronate Effective for Chronic Shoulder Pain: Study

The drug sodium hyaluronate -- currently approved in the United States to treat knee osteoarthritis -- is also effective for chronic shoulder pain and may provide an alternative to Vioxx and other Cox-2 inhibitors, according to a Columbia University Medical Center study.

The six-month study of 602 patients found that the drug reduced chronic pain by nearly 50 percent in people with osteoarthritis of the shoulder. The findings were presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, in Chicago.

"Chronic shoulder pain is a common problem that cannot be adequately treated with existing FDA-approved therapies," study principal investigator Dr. Theodore Blaine, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia, said in a prepared statement.

"The results of the trial are very encouraging, and we hope will lead to this drug's approval as an effective therapy for thousands of suffering patients," Blaine said.

The FDA is currently reviewing the study's findings.

Vioxx and another Cox-2 painkiller, Bextra, were removed from the market after studies showed they increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.

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