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Health Highlights: March 22, 2002

'Pill Mill' Doc Gets 63 Years in OxyContin Deaths British Court Grants Woman Her Right To Die 'Mystery Rash' Reappears in Philadelphia Are Menthol Cigarettes A Real Drag? Researchers Debate Issue New Health Record Rules May Limit Right to Privacy Latest Cell Phone Study: Driver Use More Dangerous Than Being Drunk Tuberculosis Cases Fall in U.S.

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

"Pill Mill" Doc Gets 63 Years in OxyContin Deaths

A Florida doctor was sentenced today to 63 years in prison on a manslaughter conviction he received in the overdose deaths of four patients who had been prescribed the painkiller OxyContin.

Prosecutors had described Dr. James Graves, 55, as running a so-called "pill mill," where drug addicts and dealers could easily get prescriptions of the powerful drug, reports the Associated Press.

Graves had testified that his patients lied about their symptoms and said the patients would not have died had they taken the drugs as he had instructed.

He is the first doctor in the nation to receive a guilty verdict in an Oxycontin death.

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British Court Grants Woman Her Right To Die

A paralyzed woman has been granted a right to die by Britain's High Court, making her apparently the first mentally competent person in that country to terminate life-sustaining treatment.

The Associated Press reports that the woman, identified only as "B," had explained to a family court official from her hospital bed why she wished to die. The testimony was broadcast through closed-circuit television to the High Court.

The woman was paralyzed from the neck down due to a ruptured blood vessel in her neck. She has been unable to breath on her own since the rupture, a year ago.

The court ruled that B was mentally competent to make the decision and conceded that "life in that condition may be worse than death."

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'Mystery Rash' Reappears in Philadelphia

About 60 Philadelphia school children were sent home from school this week with what's appearing to becoming the mystery rash that won't go away.

The students at Mast Community Charter School, in northeast Philadelphia, were sent home with itchy pink blotches on their arms and necks, according to wire service reports.

Similar unexplained rashes have been reported among school children in 14 states since last October. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed the cases but says it found no common cause linking the rashes.

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Are Menthol Cigarettes A Real Drag? Researchers Debate Issue

Researchers have presented conflicting data on whether menthol cigarettes are more harmful to your health.

Some experts have asserted that the cool, light taste of menthol cigarettes causes smokers to inhale more deeply, and hence taking in more harmful elements. Others suspect menthol can damage cells and make smokers more vulnerable to cancer.

One study presented today at a conference called by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta showed that menthol was not associated with higher intake of nicotine or carbon monoxide.

But other research presented showed that menthol does indeed increase exposure to carbon monoxide in men and causes higher levels of nicotine in plasma.

The CDC is, itself, conducting a comprehensive study on the impact of menthol cigarettes and called the conference to encourage more research on the issue.

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New Health Record Rules May Limit Right to Privacy

Doctors, health insurers and other groups won't need your expressed written permission before sharing your private medical information under new rules proposed yesterday by the Bush Administration, reports HealthDay.

Saying the hoops involved in obtaining prior consent could jeopardize patient care, the White House wants to allow sharing of health information so long as people are first notified orally or in writing about the disclosure.

Although there is a brief period when the public can comment on the administration's plan, its April 2003 start date is arbitrary. President Bush doesn't need congressional consent to implement the rules.

Reaction from those with opposing views was predictable. Representatives from the health insurance and medical professions called the new plan a workable compromise, while a health consumer activist called the measure a "giant... scam."

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Latest Cell Phone Study: Driver Use More Dangerous Than Being Drunk

Talking on your cell phone behind the wheel is more dangerous than driving while over the legal alcohol limit, according to a new study reported by BBC News Online.

Drivers on mobile phones have 30 percent slower reaction times than people who drive under the influence, researchers at Britain's Transport Research Laboratory say. The rate is 50 percent slower than a normal person's driving.

Drivers with a phone in their hands also are less able to maintain a constant speed and find it more difficult to keep a safe distance behing the vehicle in front of them, the study finds.

And the average braking distance rises dramatically among cell phone users. The study says normal braking distance for a person going 70 mph is 112 feet, for an alcohol-impaired person it's 115 feet, and for a distracted cellphone user it's 148 feet, the BBC reports.

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Tuberculosis Cases Fall in the U.S.

Tuberculosis cases fell last year to an historic low, but the decline over the last decade seems to be leveling off, according to officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the 9th consecutive annual drop, 15,991 cases of the highly infectious respiratory disease were diagnosed in 2001, a 2 percent decline from a year earlier, the CDC tells the Associated Press. The number fell 7 percent from 1999 to 2000.

TB cases rose in the late 80s and early 90s as the disease developed a resistance to certain antibiotics. But a concerted federal effort to prevent the disease combined with development of newer drugs accounts for the recent drop, the CDC says.

Internationally, especially in third world countries, the disease is on the upswing. Spread by prolongued contact in close quarters, it kills 2 million people each year across the globe.

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