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Health Highlights: Oct. 12, 2002

Smokeless Tobacco Settlement Said to be First of Kind Workers Exposed to Low-Level Radiation at Fla. Nuclear Plant Middle East-bound Troops Likely to Get Smallpox Shots Ulcer Drug Patent Ruling Leaves Room for Generic Brands WHO Increases Estimated Smoking-Related Death Rate Cancer Life Expectancy Rates Are Longer Woman Awarded $2.2B in Diluted Cancer-Drug Lawsuit Monthly Contraceptive Recalled for Low Potency

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

Smokeless Tobacco Settlement Said to be First of Kind

In what appears to be the first time a tobacco company has agreed to compensate an individual for health problems allegedly caused by its products, a Connecticut smokeless tobacco firm has reached what it calls a "resolution" over a lawsuit filed by a former user who developed tongue cancer.

The unspecified resolution, which analysts call a "settlement in disguise," was confirmed yesterday. It involves smokeless tobacco giant UST Inc. and the Florida plaintiff, Michael L. McMullin, 29, according to The Los Angeles Times.

McMullin's lawsuit was to go to trial on Oct. 21.

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Workers Exposed to Low-Level Radiation at Fla. Nuclear Plant

Federal investigators are trying to determine how 28 workers at a Florida nuclear power plant were exposed to low levels of radiation earlier this month.

The Oct. 6 exposure at the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant, owned by Florida Power & Light, was said to be "very low" level, and the company says none of those exposed reported becoming ill.

Plant employees and several outside contractors working above an area where two maintenance workers were pressure-cleaning the top part of a reactor apparently inhaled radioactive particles, according to the Associated Press. The two maintenance workers were the only ones wearing protective suits.

The inspectors say they are trying to see if government guidelines were followed in the maintenance procedure.

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Middle East-bound Troops Likely to Get Smallpox Shots

Smallpox vaccinations for U.S. troops may be coming sooner, rather than later, as the possibility of military action against Iraq grows.

As soon as the newest batch of smallpox vaccine is licensed in mid-November, the Pentagon is expected to begin vaccinating as many as half a million troops, reports The New York Times.

Though not yet officially approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the vaccinations are all but certain and would be given primarily to troops expected to be sent to the Middle East, reports the Times.

While officials consider how to vaccinate health professionals and so-called "first responders" in the event of a smallpox bioterror attack back in the United States, debate also continues over whether to offer the vaccination to the general public due to concerns about potential side effects.

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Ulcer Drug Patent Ruling Leaves Room for Generic Brands

Just about all sides in a battle over the patent of the popular ulcer drug Prilosec say they're pleased with a federal judge's decision last night to uphold the patent protection for the drug's maker, AstraZeneca.

Sort of.

Judge Barbara S. Jones, of Federal District Court in New York City, ruled that the company's patent had indeed been infringed upon by three generic drug makers -- the Andrx Corporation, Cheminor and Genpharm Inc. But Jones also ruled that the generic version of Prilosec made by U.S. units of the German company Schwarz Pharma did not infringe on the patent.

While AstraZeneca is hailing the ruling as a victory, Schwarz Pharma is also reportedly "ecstatic." That's because the decision theoretically leaves open the door for Schwarz Pharma to strike marketing deals with the other companies to sell a generic version of Prilosec, reports The New York Times.

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WHO Increases Estimated Smoking-Related Death Rate

The World Health Organization has revised its estimate on the number of people expected to die each year from smoking-related causes -- and it's not for the better.

The WHO says it now projects that illnesses related to smoking kill about 4.9 million people around the world each year. Two years ago, the number was estimated to be just 4 million.

In addition, the WHO had projected that the number of deaths annually by the year 2030 would be 10 million. It now says that estimate was too low, reports the Associated Press.

The organization says the revised figures reflect new research on tobacco's impact on tuberculosis and heart deaths in China and India.

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Cancer Life Expectancy Rates Are Longer

Life expectancies for people diagnosed with cancer may be longer than we think, reports HealthDay.

A study appearing in this week's issue of The Lancet computes 20-year survival estimates that are 1 percent to 11 percent higher for a range of cancers when calculated with a new method that uses up-to-date computer programs.

In the study, German researchers compared survival estimates using the relatively new "period analysis" method and the traditional "cohort method." The cohort method involves looking at longevity in patients who were diagnosed with cancer many years ago. Period analysis uses more recent data, theoretically reflecting advances in detection and treatment.

With period analysis, estimates of five-year, 10-year, 15-year and 20-year survival rates for all types of cancer were 63 percent, 57 percent, 53 percent and 51 percent, respectively. This represented increases of 1 percent, 7 percent, 11 percent and 11 percent, respectively, over the cohort-based analysis. Period analysis also showed 20-year survival rates that were remarkably high for various cancers.

"This is really good news and optimistic. It shows that in recent years more cancer patients are living longer," says Dr. Ruth Oratz, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. "We are making progress in the war against cancer."

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Woman Awarded $2.2B in Diluted Cancer-Drug Lawsuit

A Kansas City, Mo., jury has awarded $2.2 billion to a cancer patient whose pharmacist diluted the chemotherapy drugs she took.

Georgia Hayes, 44, was the first of some 400 people to file lawsuits against former pharmacist Robert Courtney, who has pleaded guilty to diluting the chemotherapy drugs for profit. He faces up to 30 years in prison.

Hayes, first diagnosed with cancer in 1996, now has ovarian cancer, reports the Associated Press. Her attorneys claimed she is sicker today because of the watered-down drugs.

Courtney has been stripped of his pharmacist's license and was forced to sell two pharmacies. Federal authorities say his scheme may have affected as many as 4,200 patients.

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Monthly Contraceptive Recalled for Low Potency

Pharmacia Corp. is recalling the injectable Lunelle monthly contraceptive, citing possible lack of full potency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

The recall applies only to Lunelle packaged in prefilled syringes, not to the product packaged in vials. Women who have been using Lunelle are advised to seek the advice of their doctors in selecting a different form of contraception, the company says.

Pharmacia says the affected lots were distributed in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands during 2002. All doctors, clinics and pharmacists who dispensed the product are being notified, the company says.

For more information, contact Pharmacia at 1-888-691-6813.

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