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Health Highlights: Oct. 18, 2002

Court Overturns Rule Requiring Drug Research in Kids Three West Nile Cases Linked to Tainted Blood Can You Brush Away the Menopause Blues? U.S. Syphilis Rate at Historic Low Rise in Autism Cases Puzzles Experts New Rates for Medicare, Social Security Announced

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

Court Overturns Rule Requiring Drug Research in Kids

The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C, has overturned rules requiring that drug companies must test and prove the safety of adult medicines on children when it is known that such drugs are commonly given to kids.

The so-called "pediatric rule," issued in 1998, gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to require such tests. The rule addressed the concern that many adult drugs were being given to children without first having researched their impact on kids. Studies on children are rare.

But a conservative think tank and a private doctors' group challenged the rule, arguing that the pharmaceutical companies cannot be forced to research drugs on children if they are not planning to seek FDA approval for children's use, reports the Associated Press.

In a ruling issued late yesterday, the court agreed. It noted that Congress had already rejected the requirement, and instead passed legislation in January giving drugmakers financial incentives for conducting the tests. A grant program was also set up to help fund backup pediatric studies when drug companies turned down the incentives.

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Three West Nile Cases Linked to Tainted Blood

Federal health officials are investigating whether three cases of West Nile virus in Ohio were contracted through blood transfusions, reports The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

One of the patients, identified as 74-year-old Dorothy Corwin, died on Monday. Corwin had received blood transfusions before and during open-heart surgery in August. The two other suspected cases, a 60-year-old man and 68-year-old woman, also had recently received blood transfusions. Both are recovering at home.

West Nile virus has typically been associated with transmission through infected mosquitoes. But after four patients caught the virus through organ transplants received from an infected donor, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed last month that the virus could apparently also be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Authorities are conducting tests to determine the source of the blood in the Ohio cases, and say there were probably multiple donors involved.

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Can You Brush Away the Menopause Blues?

If the symptoms of menopause have you forgetting to even take your hormone replacement therapy (HRT), researchers may have a nifty solution: HRT toothpaste.

The mint-flavored toothpaste, developed by researchers at Eastern Virginia Medical School, is infused with estradiol, a synthetic version of the female hormone estrogen. When used as a toothpaste, the estradiol is absorbed through the lining of the cheek and then passes into the bloodstream, reports the BBC.

In testing the toothpaste on 15 women aged between 40 and 65, the researchers found that brushing once a day for a week with the paste delivered enough estrogen to relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings. Hormone levels in the blood remained high enough to relieve symptoms 24 hours later.

In three of the patients, however, the levels of estrogen in the blood were too low to relieve any symptoms. The findings were reported by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

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U.S. Syphilis Rate at Historic Low

With U.S. cases of syphilis at all-time lows, the sexually transmitted disease could be on the endangered list nationwide by 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The agency cites recent public awareness campaigns and quick responses to isolated outbreaks, reports the Associated Press. The disease is most prevalent among prostitutes, addicts who trade sex for drugs, and gay men. People infected with syphilis are often more susceptible to the AIDS-causing HIV virus.

After peaking at 20.3 cases per 100,000 people in 1990, the rate plunged to 2.2 cases per 100,000 in 2002 -- the lowest since the government first began tracking the disease in 1941, the AP reports.

If untreated, syphilis can damage the heart, brain and nervous system.

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Rise in Autism Cases Puzzles Experts

A more than three-fold jump in cases of autism in California cannot be explained by a growing public awareness of the disease or by statistical factors, a new study finds.

University of California at Davis researchers reported on what they deem an autism "epidemic" to the state legislature yesterday. Cases of the mysterious brain disorder soared to 10,360 in 1998 from 2,778 in 1987, a 273 percent increase, reports The New York Times.

Experts say it's not clear if the findings apply elsewhere in the United States, because reporting and data-gathering practices vary from state to state.

The study considered cases of "full spectrum" (also called profound) autism, which often leaves afflicted people unable to speak or continuously performing repetitive motions like flapping their arms or rocking.

The UC-Davis researchers found that the spike in cases also could not be explained by other popular theories, including birth injuries and childhood immunizations, the Times reports.

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New Rates for Medicare Deductibles, Social Security Benefits Announced

Medicare Part A participants will pay 3.5 percent more out-of-pocket next year for services performed at in-patient hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities, and for some home health-care cases, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced today. The annual deductible will rise to $840 in 2003 from $812.

For Medicare's optional Part B coverage, the deductible will jump 8.7 percent next year, to $58.70 from $54. Part B covers things like physician services, outpatient hospital services, and durable medical equipment. The law specifies that the Part B premium cover 25 percent of estimated program costs for seniors who are enrolled, with general revenue tax dollars covering the rest.

The government also announced that monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to more than 50 million Americans will increase 1.4 percent in 2003. Social Security and SSI benefits increase automatically each year based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

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