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Health Highlights: April 15, 2005

Two-Thirds of Flu Virus Specimens Destroyed U.S. Bill Would Ensure Prescriptions Are Filled Anti-HIV Gel Should Be Available Soon, U.N. Official Says Vietnam Vets Who Didn't Spray Agent Orange Still at Risk: Study Health Insurer Moves Away From Mail-Order Drugs

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

Two-Thirds of Flu Virus Specimens Destroyed

Two-thirds of deadly flu virus shipments mistakenly sent to labs throughout the world have been destroyed, officials at the U.N.'s World Health Organization said Friday. The agency said it is still tracking down two shipments bound for Lebanon and Mexico, according to the Associated Press.

The agency estimates that thousands of labs in 18 countries received samples of the 50-year-old H2N2 virus as part of a flu test kit, and a global effort has been underway to identify and destroy those samples. As of Friday, WHO influenza chief Klaus Stohr said 10 countries have confirmed that they have destroyed their specimens. However, labs in Lebanon and Mexico "never received the specimen even though they were on the distribution list," Stohr said.

It's possible those samples were never shipped, Stohr added, and the WHO is launching an investigation into these missing kits.

According to the WHO official, Hong Kong, Belgium, Singapore, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan have now confirmed that their labs have destroyed their samples of the virus.

Five other countries -- Saudia Arabia, Bermuda, Brazil, Israel and Japan -- received the kits as well. Sohr told the AP Saudi Arabia has tracked down and destroyed samples in four out of five labs, while the four other countries have not yet confirmed they have destroyed their pathogens, although they have received instructions to do so.

It is still unclear whether all the shipments to U.S. labs, which received the bulk of the specimen kits, have been destroyed.

Speaking with the Cincinnati Post, Dr. Jared N. Schwartz, secretary-general of the American College of Pathologists, said his organization shipped 3,747 of the test kits, including a total of 9,181 specimens of the H2N2 virus, between September and early April. By Thursday afternoon, the ACP had received confirmation that 2,227 of the kits in labs worldwide have already been destroyed.

How kits including the deadly virus managed to get shipped at all remains a mystery, Schwartz told the Post. He speculated that a labeling error at Meridian Bioscience, a Newtown, Ohio company charged with preparing the test kits, might be to blame. But Schwartz said that idea is purely conjecture since Meridian officials have remained silent on their role, if any, in the H2N2 debacle. "There is not good communication at this point," Schwartz said.

Another group, the American Association of Bioanalysts, in St. Louis, Mo., also sent out a total of 343 H2N2-tainted kits, according to AAB administrator Mark Birenbaum. He told the Post that, as of Thursday morning, 303 of these kits had been destroyed.

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U.S. Bill Would Ensure Prescriptions Are Filled

Both houses of Congress have crafted legislation designed to ensure that all legal drug prescriptions are filled, even if a pharmacist cites moral beliefs that equate certain forms of birth control with abortion.

The legislation, dubbed the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act (ALPhA), would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription only if it could be filled by a co-worker at the same pharmacy, CNN reported.

"Nobody has a right to come between any person and their doctor," the network quoted the legislation's Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), as saying. "Today they might not fill prescriptions for birth control pills. Tomorrow it could be painkillers for a cancer patient," he added.

The American Pharmacists Association favors the idea of letting pharmacists follow their conscience, but only if customers have another way to get a prescription filled, CNN said.

The network, citing statistics from the reproductive-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said at least 10 states are considering legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions. A federal law would pre-empt any state law.

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Anti-HIV Gel Should Be Available Soon, U.N. Official Says

In lieu of the elusive AIDS vaccine that scientists have been working on for two decades, a vaginal gel to protect women from contracting HIV during intercourse may be available in as few as three or four years, the United Nations' AIDS chief says.

About 15 HIV/AIDS microbicide products are being tested among "thousands and thousands" of women worldwide, U.N. official Peter Piot told the Associated Press.

The product would be in the form of a gel or ovule that's applied in the vagina before intercourse. Designed to kill HIV on contact, it would be similar in principle to a contraceptive spermicide, Piot told the wire service.

Nearly half of the 39.4 million people worldwide infected with HIV are female, the AP said. The new product would give women control over HIV/AIDS prevention, where they must now rely on whether their male partner is faithful and uses a condom, Piot said.

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Vietnam Vets Who Didn't Spray Agent Orange Still at Risk: Study

Vietnam veterans may be at a greater-than-average risk of cancer even if they weren't directly involved in spraying the dioxin-laden defoliant known as Agent Orange, a new study finds.

Led by scientists at the U.S. Air Force, researchers studied nearly 1,500 veterans who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, but did not spray Agent Orange or any other herbicide. They were found to contain significant blood levels of TCDD, the highly toxic dioxin contaminant of Agent Orange, the researchers said in a statement.

Veterans who spent longer periods in Southeast Asia were more than twice as likely to develop prostate cancer, compared to those with shorter tours of duty, the researchers found.

The cancer risk was highest for those who spent more than 2 years in Southeast Asia and had above-median blood levels of TCDD, the scientists said.

Results of the study are published in April's Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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Health Insurer Moves Away From Mail-Order Drugs

Reversing a trend that has seen health insurers forcing members to buy their drugs from mail-order pharmacies, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota said it would urge workers enrolled in the plans to now fill 90-day prescriptions for chronic conditions at conventional retail drug stores.

According to The New York Times, some consumers have balked at ordering their medications through the mail, citing concerns about safety and convenience. At the same time, local drugstores have been hit hard by a loss of business as online pharmacies scooped up sales. A recent analysis found that mail-order drug purchases now comprise 17 percent of U.S. prescriptions.

In recent years, insurers have turned to mail-order vendors for financial reasons, especially for bulk, 90-day prescriptions typically used to treat chronic conditions. But Al Heaton, director of pharmacy for Minnesota Blue Cross, told the Times that Thursday's announcement was "the beginning of a trend."

Some believe the shift back to retail stores will be industry-wide. "People really prefer retail pharmacy over mail," said Mary Ann Wagner, president of Pharmacy Care Alliance, which represents drug store chains.

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