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Health Highlights: Oct. 4, 2002

Smoker Awarded $28 Billion in Tobacco Suit Researchers Find Clues to 'Foreign Accent Syndrome' New Test Detects Osteoarthritis Faster Organ Donor With Hepatitis C Infects Others Latest Anthrax Vaccine Requires Fewer Shots New Treatment Helps People With Cystic Fibrosis

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

Smoker Awarded $28 Billion in Tobacco Suit

A Los Angeles jury has awarded a whopping $28 billion in punitive damages to a 64-year-old former smoker who sued Philip Morris Inc. on the grounds of fraud and negligence.

The plaintiff, Betty Bullock, started smoking at the age of 17 and later developed lung cancer that has spread to her liver. Bullock's lawyer, Michael Piuze, argued that the tobacco giant took part in a major campaign of disinformation on the dangers of smoking in the 1950s that was the "largest fraud scheme ever perpetrated by corporations anywhere," reports the Associated Press.

The jury responded by awarding the largest verdict ever awarded in such a case. In addition to the punitive damages, awarded today, the jury last month ordered the tobacco company to pay Bullock $750,000 in damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering.

Philip Morris had argued that Bullock was aware of the health risks of smoking and was repeatedly warned by her doctor over four decades. The company says it will appeal the verdict.

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Researchers Find Clues to 'Foreign Accent Syndrome'

One of the more unusual effects of a brain injury is the loss of the ability to speak in one's native accent, and now researchers say they may understand why.

Scientists at Oxford University say that in examining the brains of patients with the so-called "foreign accent syndrome," they found that a number of them had tiny areas of damage in various parts of the brain, reports the BBC.

The changes could explain subtle changes in patients' way of speaking, including lengthening of syllables, altered pitch or mispronounced sounds that can make a person's pronunciation sound like an accent.

While the changes can be disturbing, the researchers say that with time, it's likely that patients' speech will become more like it was before the injury.

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New Test Detects Osteoarthritis Faster

An international team of researchers has discovered that telltale signs of the painful joint disease osteoarthritis can be found in samples of blood and urine, reports HealthDay.

The study, published in the current issue of Arthritis and Rheumatism, found that osteoarthritis causes changes in the levels of two markers of collagen production and metabolism. Collagen is a component of cartilage.

"What this study clearly shows is that there are biological markers for cartilage synthesis and degradation, and that they are present in osteoarthritis," says Dr. John Klippel, medical director of the Arthritis Foundation. Klippel was not involved in the current research.

Currently, the only way to diagnose osteoarthritis is through X-rays, CT scans or MRIs, Klippel says. The problem with relying on these methods is that it takes a lot of time before any changes in cartilage become evident, and by that time the damage is already done. Also, researchers cannot quickly assess whether new treatments are effective or not.

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Organ Donor With Hepatitis C Infects Others

Five of six people who received organ transplants from an Oregon man who had been infected with an undiagnosed case of hepatitis C have died. And the sixth is infected with the disease, state health officials say.

A total of 40 people received organs or tissue from the man. Of the others who received types of tissue from the man, four have hepatitis C, three also have it but probably became infected before receiving the tissue transplants, and the others are still being sought.

The man, whose name was not revealed, died two years ago. At the time of his death, he had not been infected long enough to produce antibodies that would have shown up on a standard screening test, experts tell The New York Times. He also apparently had no symptoms of the liver disease.

Hepatitis C -- transmitted sexually or through the use of shared needles -- accounts for some 70 percent of cases of chronic hepatitis and as many as half of all cases of end-stage liver disease, the newspaper reports. It is not uncommon for symptoms to first show up 10 or 20 years after initial infection, the Times says.

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Latest Anthrax Vaccine Requires Fewer Shots

U.S. government researchers have devised a new anthrax vaccine that cuts in half the number of shots needed to protect a person.

The Department of Health and Human Services has awarded contracts totaling $22.5 million to two pharmaceutical firms to test the experimental three-shot vaccine, reports the Associated Press. The current vaccine requires six shots over 18 months, plus an annual booster.

The government wants 25 million doses produced to add to its stockpiles. California-based VaxGen Inc. says production and testing should begin in the middle of next year, the AP says. The other firm approved for production is Avecia, a privately held British firm.

Today is the first anniversary of the beginning of last fall's anthrax-by-mail attacks, when health officials announced that a Florida newspaper employee had mysteriously contracted and died from the disease.

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New Treatment Helps People With Cystic Fibrosis

A common antibiotic approved to treat pneumonia and ear infections can also help people with cystic fibrosis breathe better, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation says.

Studies commissioned by the foundation concluded that the drug, azithromycin, was effective in improving the lung function of patients infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the most common cause of respiratory infection among people with CF. The main symptom of the disease is sticky, mucus-clogged airways that harbor infection-causing bacteria.

As a result, CF patients typically lose more and more lung function over time, eventually dying of lung failure. The 10-year-old drug allowed most users to regain lung capacity over a six-month trial.

CF affects about 30,000 Americans and some 70,000 people worldwide, the foundation says.

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