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Health Highlights: Oct. 19, 2002

Four Louisiana Dogs Develop West Nile, Three Die Probe Curtails N.Y. Psychiatric Patient Release Practices Experts Angered by Release of HRT Findings to Drug Company FDA Oversight Drops, Drug Company Ads Increase Court Overturns Rule Requiring Drug Research in Kids Three West Nile Cases Linked to Tainted Blood

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

Four Louisiana Dogs Develop West Nile, Three Die

West Nile virus appears to have a fatal effect on dogs as well as birds and humans.

Four dogs in Louisiana that showed symptoms of encephalitis are believed to have developed the disease as a result of West Nile virus, say state veterinarian officials.

Three of the dogs died after showing symptoms such as seizures and flinching at a gentle touch. These symptoms are consistent with the brain inflammation associated with West Nile, reports the Associated Press.

The dogs were not old or otherwise ill. The youngest was a 5-month-old German shepherd. The oldest, a 6-year-old Dalmatian, has recovered from the illness. West Nile has also reportedly infected more than 110 species of birds, but it's been rarely seen in dogs and cats. Officials warned that veterinarians who observe central nervous system problems in dogs should consider West Nile as a possible cause.

This year's outbreak of the virus is the largest in U.S. history. It has spread coast-to-coast and has claimed the lives of 146 people. Almost 3,000 others contracted the disease in 34 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Probe Curtails N.Y. Psychiatric Patient Release Practices

State of New York social workers have been ordered to halt a highly criticized practice of releasing non-violent patients from psychiatric hospitals to locked-up wards in nursing homes.

The New York Times reports that the orders from state psychiatric hospital officials come just as the U.S. Justice Department had launched an investigation to determine whether conditions at the nursing homes violated federal laws designed to protect the rights of the disabled and those who are institutionalized.

In its own investigation, the Times found patients who had supposedly been discharged confined to locked-up quarters. They were prevented from having contact with others and left in the care of staff who were inadequately trained in mental illness. The practice had been permitted with the approval of Gov. George E. Pataki's administration, reports the Times.

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Experts Angered by Release of HRT Findings to Drug Company

In a move that has some health experts fuming, the U.S. government is preparing to give the maker of a leading hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drug access to much of the still-unpublished data on a study that turned the HRT industry on its ear.

The medical community's approach to HRT was rocked in July when part of the now-famous Women's Health Initiative study of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals' estrogen/progestin drug Prempro was halted early amid findings that the therapy did more harm than good, reports the Washington Post. Among the findings were that women on Prempro showed small but significant increases in heart disease, breast cancer, stroke and blood clots.

Facing a possible order to turn the research over to Wyeth through a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act, officials with the National Institutes of Health voluntarily agreed to provide the research to the company on the condition that it not publish articles until researchers are finished publishing the study's findings.

But the Post quotes several experts saying they fear the company will use the information to put a positive spin on the study and to try to undermine the findings on hormone therapy. Sales of hormone drugs have plummeted since the early findings were released.

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FDA Oversight Drops, Drug Company Ads Increase

As sophisticated drug company ads blanket the airwaves and magazine pages in ever-increasing numbers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's oversight of such ads appears to be sharply declining, according to an article in today's Boston Globe.

The FDA, charged with making sure ads are honest and accurate, demanded that drug companies fix ads 64 times last year. But that number is down to just 18 this year, and the FDA is meanwhile considering whether it should further loosen its rules that govern ad content, reports the Globe.

Since an easing in FDA rules on ads targeting consumers four years ago, drug companies' spending on advertising nearly doubled to more than $19 billion last year. The ads promote their drugs to consumers as well as doctors, according to IMS Health, which follows the pharmaceutical industry.

Critics say that without better oversight, the public's health is placed at risk as many are persuaded to buy expensive drugs that they don't need.

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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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