Health Highlights: Nov. 16, 2002

Nationwide Alert Issued for S.C. Company's Drugs Virus Plagues Caribbean Cruise Ship Mass. Governor Hospitalized FDA Warns Painkiller Can Cause Serious ReactionsDrugmakers Offer Elderly Discounted Generic BrandsFBI Warns Hospitals about Terrorist Threats

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

Nationwide Alert Issued for S.C. Company's Drugs

The Food and Drug Administration has issued a nationwide alert warning health workers that injectable antibiotics, pain medications and hormones made by Urgent Care Pharmacy of Spartanburg, S.C., may be dangerous.

Pain clinics and other health facilities should immediately quit using all injectable drugs made by Urgent Care, the government said yesterday, after one of that company's drugs was linked to deadly meningitis.

Acording to an Associated Press report, the company recalled one of its injectable drugs, the steroid methylprednisolone, in September after it was linked to four cases of meningitis caused by a rare fungus. One of the patients died.

The FDA says its inspections found the Spartanburg pharmacy ill-equipped to ensure sterility in any of the injected drugs it makes, and Urgent Care wasn't properly testing the drugs for sterility before shipping them to pain clinics and other customers.

Urgent Care refused to recall any other drugs, the FDA says, so the agency is urging health workers to avoid using any of the following injected drugs made by Urgent Care: baclofen, betamethasone, Bimix 30:1, clonidine, estradiol, hydromorphone, fentanyl, morphine, papaverine, Super Trimix, mesylate/prostaglandin, and testosterone.

The drugs were sold in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

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Virus Plagues Caribbean Cruise

The run of illness on one Caribbean cruise ship continues.

Twenty more passengers on board Holland America's cruise ship Amsterdam got sick from a stomach virus, bringing the total to 28 on the current voyage and at least 465 on the boat's last four sails.

The illnesses on the Amsterdam's current 10-day Caribbean cruise continued despite efforts to scrub the ship clean. The passengers who became ill, along with 32 of their traveling companions, were flown home from Curacao when the ship made a scheduled stop there two days ago, company spokesman Erik Elvejord says.

The Associated Press reports that the epidemic began in early October, when at least 215 people got sick on the Amsterdam's cruise from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale. At least 222 more fell ill on the ship's next two outings.

After 600 workers had spent hours cleaning and sanitizing the ship, it departed Nov. 11 with 1,316 passengers. All had received a letter about the virus, which strikes people with up to two days of diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, but all opted to board anyway.

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Mass. Governor Hospitalized

Massachusetts Acting Gov. Jane Swift was resting comfortably today but remained hospitalized, a day after she was admitted with headaches and nausea.

Swift's husband and three daughters visited her at Brigham & Women's Hospital, where she remained in good condition after two days of the symptoms, said Swift spokesman Jim Borghesani.

"There's no diagnosis as of yet," Borghesani added.

Swift, 37, contacted her doctor yesterday, who examined her and recommended she admit herself to the hospital for observation, Borghesani said. He said it was unclear how long she would remained hospitalized, but he expected she would be back at work on Monday.

Swift was elected as lieutenant governor and named acting governor in 2001 when Paul Cellucci was appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada. She did not run for election this year and will be replaced by governor-elect Mitt Romney, also a Republican.

She is the nation's youngest governor, the first female governor of Massachusetts and, in May 2001, she became the first U.S. governor to give birth to twin girls while in office.

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FDA Warns Painkiller Can Cause Serious Reactions

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that a new painkiller called Bextra has been associated with potentially fatal skin diseases, and that anyone who develops a rash after taking it should stop the drug immediately.

Since March, when Bextra sales first began, there have been about 20 reported cases of complications arising from the drug, including the skin diseases Stevens-Johnson syndrome, toxic epidermal necrolysis, exfoliative dermatitis, and allergic reactions, the Associated Press reports.

The FDA estimates that by the time the dangerous side effects were reported, about 800,000 to 1 million people had already begun taking Bextra, which is an anti-inflammatory used to treat arthritis and menstrual pain.

Dr. Lawrence Goldkind, the agency's deputy director for painkillers, said there is less chance of a severe reaction occurring if users stop Bextra at the first hint of a rash.

The FDA also said anyone allergic to drugs containing sulfa should not take Bextra.

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Drugmakers Offer Elderly Discounted Generic Brands

Seven U.S. brand-name drug manufacturers will include generic drugs in a program they've created that offers low-income seniors discounts on prescriptions, despite the lower sales and profits generated by no-name brands.

Peggy Heller, a spokeswoman for the program called Together Rx, said beginning Sunday, Eckerd drugstores will offer members about a 30 percent discount on generic drugs.

Together Rx membership is available to elderly Americans who are "enrolled in Medicare, have no public or private drug coverage, and have annual incomes of less than $28,000 for individuals or $38,000 for couples," the New York Times reports.

Heller said about 380,000 people have already joined and have collectively saved more than $12 million on prescriptions.

Seniors interested in applying for a Together Rx discount card can call toll-free (800) 865-7211.

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FBI Warns Hospitals about Terrorist Threats

The FBI has alerted hospitals in four different American cities to possible terrorist threats, but the White House has downplayed the warnings as vague and uncorroborated.

The information, garnered from CIA operatives in Pakistan, said hospitals in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., may be targets for bomb or anthrax attacks during the December holiday period, the Houston Chronicle reports.

In the wake of Sept. 11, most hospitals in the four cities have already tightened their security. With the latest threat, medical administrators have reminded their staff to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity in or around the institutions, while reassuring the public that the premises are safe.

White House officials have dismissed the threats as having "very low credibility" and they have chastised the FBI for unnecessarily raising the alarm.

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