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Health Highlights: Dec. 21, 2004

Legalized Drug Imports Too Costly and Difficult: Report Fewer Young Americans Smoking or Abusing Drugs Canada Set to Approve Cannabis-based MS Drug World's Smallest Baby to Survive Nears Release Cell Phones Alter DNA, Research Shows Study: Radon in Homes Causing Lung Cancer

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

Legalized Drug Imports Too Costly and Difficult: Report

Americans would be better off if they increased their use of generic prescription drugs instead of being allowed to buy drugs from other countries, according to a Bush Administration task force report on the feasibility of legalizing drug imports.

The report, released Tuesday, said it would be extremely difficult to implement a system that allows Americans to buy foreign prescription drugs in a way that guarantees the safety and effectiveness of those drugs, the Associated Press reported.

In addition, increased federal government regulation of drug makers and distributors would virtually eliminate any cost savings consumers might gain from purchasing foreign drugs, the report stated.

The report also said that allowing Americans to purchase foreign drugs would reduce investment in development of new medicines.

Instead, Americans should increase their use of generic medicines, which often cost less in the United States than in other countries, the report recommended.

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Fewer Young Americans Smoking or Abusing Drugs

Smoking and drug abuse among American youth declined again this year, says a federal government survey of 50,000 students in about 400 schools.

It found that 28 percent of eighth-grade students had ever tried cigarettes, down from 28.5 percent in 2003 and from a peak of 49 percent in 1996, the Associated Press reported.

About 41 percent of high school sophomores had tried cigarettes, down from 42 percent in 2003 and 61 percent in 1996. The survey also found that 53 percent of high school seniors had tried smoking, down from 54 percent in 2003 and more than 65 percent in 1997.

When it came to drug use, the survey found that 39 percent of 12th-graders, 31 percent of 10th graders, and 15 percent of eighth-graders had used drugs in the previous year. Those rates are down 1 percent or less from 2003, the AP reported.

The results show there's been marked progress over the last decade in convincing teens to turn their backs on cigarettes and illegal substances, researchers said.

The survey was done by the University of Michigan for the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. It was released Tuesday.

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Canada Set to Approve Cannabis-based MS Drug

Canadian health authorities are set to approve the prescription marijuana drug Sativex to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). It would be the first time that a cannabis-based drug has been approved anywhere in the world.

The mouth spray drug is made by British-based GW Pharmaceuticals. A few weeks ago, regulators said they wanted more evidence about the benefits of Sativex before they would consider it for approval, BBC News Online reported.

Analysts said final approval in Canada is little more than a formality and the drug could be available to Canadian MS patients within a few months.

Many MS patients smoke marijuana to relieve their symptoms.

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World's Smallest Baby to Survive Nears Release

The world's smallest baby ever to survive is due to be released in a matter of weeks from a suburban Chicago Hospital, the Loyola University Health System says.

Rumaisa Rahman, weighing in at just over a half-pound at birth, was delivered by Caesarean section with her fraternal twin sister, Hiba, in September after just 26 weeks of gestation. Normal gestation is 40 weeks.

The Indian twins were born early because their mother developed high blood pressure during pregnancy, a serious condition called preeclampsia.

Rumaisa was born at 8.6 ounces; her sister weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces at birth. The smaller twin is said to have a normal head shape, and there is no bleeding in the brain, a common side effect of babies born so early and so small, her doctors at Loyola University Medical Center said.

Rumaisa now weighs about 2 pounds, 10 ounces, while her larger twin tips the scales at about 5 pounds, a hospital statement said.

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Cell Phones Alter DNA, Research Shows

Radio waves emitted from cell phones appear to damage human DNA, new research funded by the European Union shows.

However, scientists involved in the so-called Reflex study did not prove that such changes posed a threat to human health, and cautioned that more research was needed, according to an account from BBC News Online.

The study leaders, calling their results preliminary, found that cell phone radiation appeared to damage the DNA in cells, and that the damage could not always be repaired. The mutations were seen in the next generation of cells as well, the scientists said.

Several prior studies on the possible risks of cell phones have shown mixed results. The cell phone industry maintains that there is no scientific evidence that the devices pose any harm from electromagnetic radiation. About 1.5 billion people use cell phones worldwide, the network reported.

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Study: Radon in Homes Causing Lung Cancer

Radon that collects naturally in people's homes is causing about 9 percent of the lung cancer deaths across Europe, according to new research reported in the British Medical Journal.

Of the 20,000 radon-related deaths in Europe each year, smokers are most at risk, a journal statement said, citing the study results. A person's risk increased proportionally to how much of the gas he or she was exposed to, the British researchers at the University of Oxford found.

Radioactive radon gas exists naturally in the earth's surface and tends to collect indoors. Most of the gas is exhaled immediately, but radioactive particles can collect in the lungs, increasing a person's risk of lung cancer, the journal statement said.

The researchers examined 7,148 cases of lung cancer across Europe, then measured radon levels in the victims' homes as well as their smoking histories.

The authors said radon risks can be reduced by installation of underground venting systems in existing homes, and radon-proof barriers in new construction.

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