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Health Highlights: July 29, 2003

Mass. City Buying Prescription Drugs From Canada Chicago Hospitals Accused of Transplant Fraud FDA Approves New Clotting Factor for Hemophiliacs AIDS Cases on the Rise in U.S. Chemical That Influences Nerve Growth Found Land O' Lakes Recalls Contaminated Butter

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

Mass. City Buying Prescription Drugs From Canada

The mayor of the western Massachusetts city of Springfield isn't waiting for Congress or major pharmaceutical companies to loosen the purse strings on expensive prescription drugs.

Mayor Michael Albano told the Associated Press this week that the 9,000 employees and municipal retirees in Springfield are going to be getting their prescription medicines from north of the U.S. border.

"It boggles the mind that we can purchase the exact same drugs for 20 percent to 80 percent less in Canada," Albano told the wire service. "As far as I am concerned, it would be irresponsible not to take advantage of the savings."

Canada is one of the few countries where the currency exchange rate is still in the United States' favor, and prescription drugs also cost less because of stronger government controls.

William Hubbard, associate commissioner for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told the AP that he didn't know of any other U.S. city that had done what Springfield had. The estimated savings could be as much as $4 million.

But, he added, while the practise is not illegal, "people are taking real risks. You are on your own in assuring the safety of the drugs. The Canadian government says it's not part of its responsibility to ensure the safety of drugs being sent to the U.S."

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Chicago Hospitals Accused of Transplant Fraud

Three prestigious Chicago hospitals are accused of exaggerating the conditions of liver transplant candidates to speed up procurement of organs for the patients, the Chicago Tribune reports Tuesday.

Federal and state law enforcement officials have lodged the accusations against the University of Illinois Hospital, the University of Chicago Hospitals, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. All three hospitals, among Chicago's biggest transplant centers, deny any wrongdoing, the newspaper reports.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says authorities have reached monetary settlements with the University of Chicago and Northwestern Memorial. A civil lawsuit has been filed against the University of Illinois Hospital, the Tribune reports.

In one instance, at least three patients listed as close to death were given weekend passes to go home, the allegations say. One of the patients is reported to have dressed up in a clown costume at one of the hospitals to help promote a blood drive, the newspaper reports.

In the University of Illinois Hospital's case, the alleged fraud enabled the institution to meet the minimum number of transplants to be certified under the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, the lawsuit reportedly alleges.

Dr. Raymond Pollak, a University of Illinois transplant surgeon who exposed the alleged fraud, says profit was the motive.

"The more patients you transplant, the more referrals you get, the more revenue you get," he told the Tribune.

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FDA Approves New Clotting Factor for Hemophiliacs

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new clotting factor to treat people with hemophilia A. It's the first such treatment produced without using additives derived from human or animal blood, the agency says, eliminating the risk of viral and bacterial contamination with germs including hepatitis, HIV, and West Nile virus.

People with hemophilia are unable form blood clots, and risk life-threatening bleeding episodes. Advate (Antihemophilic Factor (Recombinant), Plasma/Albumin-Free Method) is approved to prevent and control bleeding or to prepare hemophilia patients for surgery.

Existing clotting factors derived from human or animal plasma are processed to kill any germs before they are administered to hemophiliacs. None of these products has transmitted HIV or hepatitis since 1987, the FDA says.

Advate, rAHF-PFM is manufactured by Baxter Healthcare Corp.

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AIDS Cases on the Rise in U.S.

The number of new AIDS cases appears to have begun rising again in the United States for the first time in a decade, federal estimates say.

The number of Americans diagnosed with AIDS increased 2.2 percent in 2002, the first time the incidence of the disease has risen since 1993, according to preliminary data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The increase could mark a disturbing turning point in the AIDS epidemic in the United States, which had appeared to be stabilizing because of decades of intensive safe sex campaigns and the introduction of powerful new anti-viral drugs, the Washington Post reports.

"Our biggest concern is what appears to be a resurgent epidemic in gay men," Harold Jaffe, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, told the Post.

Data from 25 states show the number of new HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men increased 7.1 percent from 2001 to 2002, marking the third consecutive year that infections have risen in that high-risk group.

On the positive side, the number of deaths from AIDS continued to decline in 2002, dropping 5.9 percent, says Jaffe, who presented the new data Monday at the National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta.

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Chemical That Influences Nerve Growth Found

Johns Hopkins University scientists in Baltimore have identified a chemical that can influence the growth of nerve cells, which eventually may allow doctors to repair damaged spinal cords and other nerve tissue.

The substance, semaphorin-7a, appears to encourage nerve cells to grow in a particular direction -- toward where the chemical is applied. Spinal cord injury patients often lose permanent function because any nerve cells that the body regenerates don't grow between severed or diseased pieces of the spinal cord, reports BBC News Online.

Lead author Prof. Alex Kolodkin cautions that the research is preliminary, and that doctors have to figure out how to harness the chemical's power to influence nerve growth without causing undesirable growth elsewhere.

Results of the study are published in the journal Nature.

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Land O' Lakes Recalls Contaminated Butter

Land O' Lakes says it's recalling certain lots of salted stick butter in one-pound packages that may be contaminated with small fragments of metal. No injuries or illnesses have been reported.

The product was distributed in: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The butter -- sold in grocery stores between June 11 and July 26 -- has one of the following production codes listed after the date:

(date) KE 107P
(date) KE 108P
(date) KE 109P

No other Land O' Lakes products are affected.

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