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Health Highlights: Nov. 2, 2002

Fla. Stands Alone in Bioterrorism Readiness Company Promoted Unapproved Uses of Drug USDA Memo on Food Inspections Assailed Ban on Dry-Cleaning Solvent Put on Hold U.S. Probes Unnecessary Heart Surgeries Oral Sex Carries HPV Risk FDA Approves Nicotine Lozenge

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

Fla. Stands Alone in Bioterrorism Readiness

Florida is the only place in the U.S. that is ready to receive and distribute emergency supplies from the federal government in the event of a bioterrorism attack, the Associated Press reports.

States, cities, and territories were supposed to send their plans to handle a germ attack to Washington, but the AP says that most haven't come with them. They were supposed to answer where they would set up 500 emergency beds, how they would distribute a stockpile of medicine, and how they would isolate highly contagious patients. The deadline was Friday.

The federal government is geared to send 50 tons of emergency medicine within 12 hours. But from there, the responsibility lies with the state and local governments to distribute the supplies and find the people to do it.

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Company Promoted Unapproved Uses of Drug

Parke-Davis promoted its epilepsy drug Neurotonin to doctors for unapproved uses rather than spend years and many millions of dollars to get a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to court documents.

Internal memos estimated that the company could save as much as $150 million by going directly to doctors rather than seek FDA approval, according to the Boston Globe.

The paper says the drug giant, which has since been bought out by Pfizer, wanted to urge doctors to prescribe Neurotonin for bipolar disorder, social phobias, panic disorder, and neuropathic pain. The FDA hasn't approved the drug for any of these ailments. Although doctors commonly prescribe drugs for illnesses other than for that which the drugs were approved -- a practice called "off-label" prescribing -- companies are forbidden from promoting them for those purposes.

The memos were released as part of a trial in which a whistleblower accuses Parke-Davis of illegally promoting the drug in the 1990s.

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USDA Memo on Food Inspections Assailed

Critics want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to disavow a memo that threatened to hold inspectors responsible for halting production at slaughterhouses because of food safety concerns.

The memo, issued last spring, said inspectors would have to justify why they had to stop work in the houses to examine traces of feces or to wash their hands, says the New York Times.

"YOU are accountable for this very serious responsibility of stopping the company's production for the benefit of food safety," the Times quotes the memo, written by two USDA veterinarians, as saying. (The word YOU is in all capital letters.) It also outlined the limits of what is considered feces.

The USDA told the paper it couldn't confirm that the memo was official, and said it has never wavered from its policy of zero tolerance for food contamination.

"Poop is poop," Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federations of America told the Times. "I can't think of any circumstance where it is tolerable to have fecal material on any meat coming off the line."

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Ban on Dry-Cleaning Solvent Put on Hold

Regulators in Southern California, pressured by intense lobbying from the dry-cleaning industry, backed off a proposal Friday to ban a solvent that has been linked to cancer.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the South Coast Air Quality Management District, after an intense hearing attended by 600 dry cleaners, postponed a vote on banning the chemical until Dec. 6. The board also said it would consider a less stringent move supported by both the chemical industry and the administration of Gov. Gray Davis.

The board was ready to approve the first ban on the solvent, perchloroethylene, a commonly used chemical that both cleans clothes and makes them crisp, the Times says.

The chemical has been associated with kidney, breast, and liver cancer. Industry officials say they've already cut emissions greatly, but that a ban would do serious harm to dry cleaners, who are mostly mom-and-pop operations run by Korean immigrants.

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U.S. Probes Unnecessary Heart Surgeries

U.S. government agents are investigating whether two doctors at one of Tenet Healthcare's California hospitals have ordered unnecessary surgeries for patients and possibly defrauded Medicare, reports The New York Times.

According to an affidavit by the FBI, the government has reason to suspect that "many known and unknown patients have been victims of a scheme to cause patients to undergo unnecessary invasive coronary procedures." The alleged surgeries include artery bypass and heart valve replacement procedures.

A spokesman for Tenet, one of the largest for-profit hospital chains in the U.S., told The Times that the company had no basis to believe the accusations were true and that Tenet was unsure whether the investigation extended to the hospital or the company or whether it was limited to the two doctors.

The physicians involved are cardiologists in private practice and aren't employed by the hospital or Tenet.

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Oral Sex Carries HPV Risk

Oral sex is not safe sex, especially for women, a Montreal doctor warned this week at the Congress for Canadian French-language doctors.

Dr. Marc Steben, an infectious disease expert, said women face a heightened risk of contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV) by performing oral sex, reports the Canadian Press. There are a variety of HPV strains of varying potency. One causes genital warts, for instance, while HPV 16 can bring about cervical cancer.

About 30 percent of women under age 30 have been infected with the virus and one in three North American men and women will have contracted HPV at one point in their lives.

Because most people with the virus are symptom-free, they're probably unaware they're infected, according to the CP report. Steben urged more women to get Pap smears, a gynecological test that can detect HPV. He also advised women to insist their male partners wear a condom during oral sex.

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FDA Approves Nicotine Lozenge

Smokers looking to quit can look forward to sucking on a nicotine lozenge to help dull their cravings, reports the Associated Press.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved GlaxoSmithKline's Commit lozenge. The product, sold in a 72-lozenge pack for $39.95, will be on pharmacy shelves next month where people can buy them without a prescription.

The lozenges vary in how much nicotine they contain. The more someone smokes, the greater the recommended strength. The idea is that smokers pop a lozenge into their mouths when overcome by a craving, instead of lighting up. This way they gradually wean themselves off cigarettes and the nicotine aid by decreasing the number and the strength of the lozenges they consume.

This is the first nicotine lozenge the FDA has approved. The agency has forced other similar products, such as nicotine lollipops, off the market claiming they were drugs and needed FDA approval to sell.

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