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Health Highlights: April 20  2005

Arrests Made in Internet Drug Crackdown Canada Approves Sales of Plan B Contraceptive Without Prescription Stem Cells That Divide Too Much Can Turn Cancerous Destruction of Deadly Flu Virus Samples Almost Finished: WHO Thousands in Tennessee Face Hepatitis Shots Hoover Vacuums Recalled for Fire Hazard

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

Arrests Made in Internet Drug Crackdown

Twenty people in the United States, Australia, Costa Rica and India have been arrested in a crackdown on illegal shipments of drugs across the Internet.

The suspects are charged with illegally shipping steroids, narcotics and amphetamines to teens and other buyers around the world, U.S. federal authorities said Wednesday. The arrests come after a year-long investigation of online pharmacies by six U.S. federal agencies, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. authorities said the Internet pharmacies targeted in the investigation sent the drugs to buyers with little or not attempt to confirm buyers' ages or medical needs, which enabled teens and drug abusers to easily obtain addictive and dangerous drugs.

In the U.S., arrests took place in Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota, Fla.; Abilene and Tyler, Texas; Greenville, S.C.; Philadelphia; and New York City and Rochester, N.Y.

The Philadelphia-based Internet pharmacy allegedly smuggled in prescription painkillers, amphetamines and steroids from other countries, then repackaged them and sold them to buyers around the world, the AP reported.

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Canada Approves Sales of Plan B Contraceptive Without Prescription

Women in Canada will no longer need a prescription to buy the Plan B emergency contraceptive, which is most effective when taken within 24 hours of unprotected sex.

Health Canada made the announcement Tuesday. Three Canadian provinces -- Quebec, British Columbia and Saskatchewan - already allowed Plan B sales without a prescription.

In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has delayed since January a decision on whether to allow Plan B to be sold without a prescription to females 16 and older. That application has been made by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc.

The FDA rejected an earlier application, saying it had concerns about girls 15 and younger using Plan B. The FDA position was considered by Canadian officials when they were making their decision, Bloomberg News reported.

"No outstanding concerns on its safety in younger teens has been identified. There is no reason to delay timely access to other women," said a Health Canada statement.

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Stem Cells That Divide Too Much Can Turn Cancerous

Adult stem cells that are allowed to multiply for too long outside the body can turn cancerous, according to new research.

The findings, published in the latest issue of New Scientist magazine, suggest that treatments that rely on stem cells stored for years in stem cell banks may not be safe and may temper expectations about the potential of using stem cells to treat many different kinds of diseases.

Until now, it was believed that adult stem cells, such as those removed from bone marrow, did not form cancers. These new studies indicate that adult stem cells are safe only if limits are put on how much they're allowed to divide outside the body.

In one study, Spanish researchers grew mesenchymal stem cells extracted from fat tissue for up to eight months, allowing the cells to divide between 90 and 140 times. When they were transplanted into laboratory animals, the oldest of those stem cells formed cancers.

The researchers suggested a limit of 60 divisions as a cut-off point but said more research is necessary in order to determine a safe limit.

In the other study, Danish scientists found that permanently switching on the telomerase gene in mesenchymal stem cells eventually causes the stem cells to turn cancerous.

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Destruction of Deadly Flu Virus Samples Almost Finished: WHO

All but one of the deadly flu virus samples mistakenly sent to labs outside the United States have been destroyed, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

The last remaining sample that had been missing was found at the Beirut, Lebanon, airport and Lebanese officials were destroying it, WHO officials told Bloomberg news.

Previously missing samples in Mexico and South Korea have also been located and destroyed.

Laboratories in the United States received most of the 3,747 test kits mistakenly sent out in October and February. According to the most recent reports, 98 percent of those U.S. samples have also been destroyed, although "there are still some U.S. labs that haven't confirmed the destruction of the samples they were sent," a WHO spokeswoman, Maria Cheng, told the Associated Press.

The kits contained an "Asian flu" strain, called H2N2, which killed between 1 million and 4 million people worldwide in 1957-58. That strain hasn't been part of flu vaccines since 1968. So anyone born after that date has little or no immunity to the germ, a fact that raised fears that the shipments could inadvertently trigger a flu pandemic.

The pathogens that were accidentally distributed to the labs around the world are used widely in research. Most of the samples were sent at the request of the College of American Pathologists, which helps labs do proficiency testing.

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Thousands in Tennessee Face Hepatitis Shots

As many as 5,000 patrons of a Clinton, Tenn., restaurant face the prospect of shots for hepatitis A to stem an outbreak of the viral liver disease, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Seventeen cases of the disease have already been confirmed, and all of those infected are believed to have eaten at the Waffle House restaurant between April 5 and April 15. Two of the patrons have been hospitalized, the AP said.

The source of the outbreak remains a mystery, the wire service reported. The restaurant estimates as many as 5,000 people may have visited the establishment during the 10-day time frame.

Since it can take up to a month before an exposed person becomes sick, tracking the source and place of the original infection is proving difficult, Campbell County health officials told the AP.

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Hoover Vacuums Recalled for Fire Hazard

Hoover is recalling 636,000 vacuums that have defective on-off switches that could overheat and catch fire, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said.

The company has received 249 reports of overheating, causing the handle area to smoke, melt, or ignite. One minor burn injury has been reported.

These model numbers are included in the recall:

U6423-900 U6425-900 U6425-950
U6445-900 U6445-960 U6449-900
U6450-900 U6451-900 U6455-900

Affected models were sold at appliance and floor-care retailers nationwide from May 1998 through July 2000 for between $259 and $279.

Consumers should stop using the recalled vacuums immediately and contact Hoover to obtain the name of the nearest authorized repair center to schedule a free repair. Call Hoover toll-free at 1-800-250-6075 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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