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Health Highlights: March 28, 2002

Arthritis Drug Linked to Liver Problems Smallpox Vaccine Find May Halt Need for Dilution Meningitis Case Pharmacist Found Dead Biotech Crops in U.S. Expanding: Survey Study: Hormones Good for Women With Mutated Gene CPSC Cries Foul on Basketball Hoops

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

Arthritis Drug Linked to Liver Problems

Consumer activists are calling on the Food and Drug Administration to ban a popular arthritis drug that has been linked to a high number of serious liver injuries and deaths.

The advocacy group Public Citizen told the government today that the FDA has received at least 130 reports of severe liver toxicity linked to the drug, Arava, according to a report from The Associated Press.

The cases reportedly led to at least 56 hospitalizations and 12 deaths.

Arava was approved by the FDA in 1998 for sale as an equally effective alternative to methotrexate, the only other drug on the market for rheumatoid arthritis.

But while methotrexate is still used by thousands more than Arava, the FDA has six times as many reports of liver damage among Arava users, the wire service report said.

Public Citizen says Arava is also linked to higher reports of lymphoma, high blood pressure and a potentially fatal autoimmune disorder called Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

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Smallpox Vaccine Find May Halt Need for Dilution

The surprise discovery of a drug company's huge -- and apparently forgotten -- cache of smallpox vaccine might well obviate the need for a major thinning-out of America's inadequate stock, reports HealthDay.

The French pharmaceutical firm Aventis Pasteur stumbled on between 70 million and 90 million doses of smallpox vaccine in the company's freezers, according to a report today in the Washington Post. If these doses are proven effective, the cache means that even thinning one-to-four would safely cover every American.

The news came the same day a new study showed that a limited supply of the vaccine can be safely diluted by a factor of five and even 10 without sacrificing its ability to protect against the deadly virus.

Len Lavenda, a spokesman for Aventis' U.S. operations, said the government asked the company not to discuss the newfound vaccine in the "interest of national security." Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson scheduled a news conference for March 29 to discuss the discovery, Lavenda said.

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Biotech Crops in U.S. Expanding: Survey

Despite much controversy over the use of bioengineered food, U.S. farmers are plowing ahead with plans to plant more genetically engineered this year than ever before, reports the Associated Press.

A spring survey by the Agricultural Department shows that farmers are expected to plant more than 79 million acres of bioengineered corn and soybeans, which will be a 13 percent increase over last year.

That means about 74 percent of the nation's soy crop and about 32 percent of the soy crop will be biotech.

Farmers prefer genetically engineered crops because they require fewer chemicals and can be engineered to do things like produce their own pesticide.

The bioengineering trend has been met with much resistance in Europe and Japan because of environmental concerns. Since soy and corn are largely domestic crops, bioengineering is more popular, but farmers are likely to be more reluctant to use biotech on exported crops.

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Meningitis Case Pharmacist Found Dead

A California pharmacist whose license had been suspended for practices linked to a fatal outbreak of meningitis was found dead on Tuesday, apparently from a bizarre drug overdose.

Authorities in Pleasant Hill, Calif., say 32-year-old Jamey Phillip Sheets was found dead by his wife with six skin patches attached to his body that contained powerful painkillers, according to The Associated Press.

Sheets was reportedly depressed over the license suspension, which was ordered when a state investigation linked a meningitis outbreak that killed three people last June with a tainted batch of injectable steroids that came from Doc's Pharmacy, which Sheets co-owned.

The tainted steroids also led to the hospitalizations of 13 others. An investigation found that bacteria had formed in the batch of steroids because of poor sanitation techniques and other substandard practices.

The pharmacy owner, Robert Horwitz, lost his license over the case.

Toxicology tests were still confirming Sheets' cause of death, but he was found with patches on his chest, stomach and neck that contained the drug fentanyl, which is similar to opium.

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Study: Hormones Boost Good Cholestrol in Women With Mutated Gene

Good cholesterol levels are boosted by hormone replacement therapy (HRT) among women who have a particular mutated estrogen gene, according to results of a study reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

About 1-in-5 American women has the variant gene, say North Carolina researchers at Wake Forest University. Researchers studied 309 post-menopausal women with heart disease, and found that good cholesterol levels were two-to-three times higher among those with the gene variant.

It's not clear, however, on whether the boost in good cholesterol will actually help prevent or alleviate heart disease, the researchers tell CNN. Recent clinical trials have cast doubt on the traditional notion that HRT can help women who have heart problems or who are prone to them.

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CPSC Cries Foul on Portable Basketball Hoops

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says more than 1.7 million portable basketball hoops are being recalled because a sharp protruding bolt poses a serious risk of cuts to consumers.

Lifetime Products, Inc., is voluntarily recalling the Lifetime and Escalade Sports hoops, citing 27 reports of injuries including scrapes, deep cuts and bruises. Several consumers required stitches for their injuries, the CPSC says today in a press release.

All Lifetime portable basketball system models, except the "Quick Court" are included in the recall. The recalled Escalade Sports hoops include the Harvard, The Big Easy, B3100, B3301, B3302, B3303, B3304, B3305, B3306, B3403, B3500, Spalding, The Big Easy B3402 and Apex B9995, Mini Court, Alley Court.

Sporting good, department and toy stores including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target and Toys R Us nationwide sold the hoops between January 1994 and December 2001 for between $80 and $500.

Consumers should stop using the products until they can install free cap nuts to cover the bolts. For more information, call Lifetime Products at (800) 225-3865.

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