Health Highlights: May 24, 2003

Toronto Struggles With Possible New Round of SARS Cases Counterfeit Lipitor Bottles Recalled Maryland Relaxes Pot Law for Medicinal Purposes VA Chided for Not Keeping Up With Aging Veterans More Canadian Ranches Quarantined in Mad Cow Probe

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

Toronto Struggles With Possible New Round of SARS Cases

The global battle against SARS, the potentially deadly respiratory illness, continues to be marked by setbacks and successes.

The Canadian city of Toronto is struggling with a new round of possible infections while Hong Kong and China announced significant advances in efforts to contain the disease.

Toronto health officials, who last month thought they'd all but eliminated the SARS threat, said there was a cluster of new cases that could number in the 40s, CBC News Online reports. The officials said the new cases involved health-care workers and hospital patients, as well as some family members. Two of the possibly infected patients had died, according to The New York Times.

As a result of these cases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Friday reinstated a travel alert for Toronto that it had lifted only on Tuesday.

The alert doesn't say that people should avoid Toronto, but that they should take precautions to safeguard their health -- for instance, avoid hospitals that might harbor the virus.

The last reported case of SARS in Toronto was April 19. These new possible cases appeared a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped Toronto from its list of SARS hotspots.

In more encouraging news, the WHO declared the SARS situation now under control in Hong Kong and China's Guangdong province, and on Friday lifted its travel advisories against those areas.

WHO issued the advisories for the two areas in early April because they were considered hotspots for SARS, BBC News Online reports.

The agency still advises against travel to Beijing and four other regions of China, as well as Taiwan, the Associated Press reports.

Friday was the 20th consecutive day that Hong Kong's number of new daily SARS cases was fewer than 10 people. There were no new cases reported Saturday. Guangdong province was the first place in the world to have SARS cases, but WHO officials said the virus is now under control there.

The current SARS hot zone is Taiwan, where 55 new cases were reported Friday. There were no new deaths. So far, 538 people in Taiwan have been infected and 60 have died. That makes the island the third worst hit area, after China and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, scientists say they may have traced the source of the SARS virus to civet cats, considered a delicacy food by some Chinese, the AP reports.

The civet cat is a nocturnal animal that isn't actually a true cat. It's in the same family as the mongoose and resembles a small raccoon or weasel. Civet cats are hunted in Asia for food and to make perfume.

University of Hong Kong scientists say they suspected the SARS virus jumped from animals to humans, but they weren't certain which animal was the source of the disease. They say civet cats should be raised, slaughtered and sold under careful monitoring to prevent disease outbreaks.

Meanwhile, a U.S. infection-control expert who may have contracted SARS while helping deal with the epidemic in Taiwan has been identified as Chesley L. Richards Jr., The New York Times reports.

Richards, an epidemiologist, was sent to Taiwan by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He landed there May 15 and visited two Taipei hospitals with reported SARS outbreaks. Richards developed a cough and fever this week -- both common SARS symptoms.

He boarded a private jet in Taiwan on Friday and returned to the United States.

Worldwide, SARS has infected more than 8,000 people and killed at least 689. The majority of infections and deaths have been in China and Hong Kong.

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Counterfeit Lipitor Bottles Recalled

Approximately 100,000 bottles of Lipitor, a drug that lowers cholesterol, are being recalled because they contain counterfeit pills, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced.

Agency officials said the phony pills were discovered following some health complaints, but they declined to offer more details because a criminal investigation is under way.

The recall involves bottles repackaged by Med-Pro, Inc., of Lexington, Neb., and the labels say "Repackaged by: MED-PRO, Inc. Lexington, Neb." in the lower left-hand corner.

The following lots are involved in the recall: 20722V - 90-tablet bottles, Expiration 09-2004; 04132V - 90-tablet bottles, Expiration 01-2004; and 16942V - 90-tablet bottles, Expiration 09-2004.

People who have any bottles with these three lot numbers should not take the pills; they should return the product to their pharmacies, the FDA says.

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Maryland Relaxes Pot Law for Medicinal Purposes

Maryland has become the ninth state in the nation to offer relief from strict marijuana laws to cancer patients, people with AIDS, and others who use the drug to relieve suffering.

Some medical experts contend that marijuana can ease the symptoms of cancer and AIDS and can help people suffering from serious nausea keep down food and medication.

In Maryland, people who smoke marijuana will be spared jail and fined no more than $100, rather than $1,000, if they can convince a judge that its use was a "medical necessity," reports the Washington Post.

Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich bucked the Bush administration by signing the bill into law, saying people in such situations deserve compassion.

The law, which takes effect Oct. 1, reduces penalties but does not legalize the drug. In eight other states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington -- marijuana is legal for medical purposes.

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VA Chided for Not Keeping Up With Aging Veterans

With the number of elderly veterans in the United States expected to double in the next decade, congressional investigators have told the Department of Veterans Affairs that it needs to beef up its services.

A General Accounting Office report pinpointed provisions for home-based care and access to respite care -- services available as temporary relief to those who care for chronically ill or disabled veterans at home -- as two key areas that will warrant more attention, according to the Associated Press. The VA says it agrees, but as yet has no specific plans to improve services.

The number of veterans 85 and older is expected to increase from about 640,000 to roughly 1.3 million by 2012, says the GAO.

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More Canadian Ranches Quarantined in Mad Cow Probe

Thirteen Canadian ranches -- eight in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan and three in British Columbia -- have now been quarantined by officials investigating a case of mad cow disease, CBC News Online reports.

Despite the extension of the original quarantine, which covered three ranches, Canadian officials say the move is just a precaution and there's no cause for alarm. They say there's no evidence that more than one cow had mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Canadian inspectors attempting to track the history of the infected 8-year-old cow now believe it may have been born on one of two Saskatchewan farms and then sold to an Alberta rancher.

Cattle feed from animal sources contaminated with BSE is considered the most likely source of infection, according to news reports.

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