Health Highlights: March 11, 2004

Syphilis Found Resistant to Potent Antibiotic Post-Mortem Drug Testing Errors on the Rise FDA Set to Crack Down on 'Andro' Producers Patients Given Possibly Incorrect HIV Test Results EPA Investigates Microwave Popcorn Chemicals Minors Hang Around Alcohol Web Sites: Study

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

Syphilis Found Resistant to Potent Antibiotic

Health officials in San Francisco are reporting that the powerful antibiotic azithromycin failed to treat patients with syphilis, prompting the U.S. government to urge doctors to start treatment with penicillin.

Syphilis cases, though small, have been on the rise in the United States in the last few years. San Francisco has been hit hard by the increase, as gay and bisexual men having unprotected sex are the major cause of the increase.

The city's Department of Public Health reports that disease control programs began administering the drug to syphilis patients because, as a pill, it is easier to administer than penicillin shots. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends penicillin as the first-line treatment for the sexually transmitted disease.

Between April and July 2003, city officials reported that eight gay men failed to respond to azithromycin, according to a report in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

All patients were treated with either penicillin or doxycycline, and responded well. The CDC says azithromycin should be prescribed only to those who have problems with penicillin.

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Post-Mortem Drug Testing Errors on the Rise

Experts are calling into question the validity of a technique commonly used to test how much of a drug a patient has been taking, a technique they say could put people in legal jeopardy.

New Scientist magazine reports that the method is inappropriately being applied to corpses as a means to establish how much of a drug a person ingested -- or was given -- before death.

The problem is that the technique, called the apparent volume of distribution, could result in vastly inflated readings, the experts say.

"There is an assumption on the part of some people that a corpse is a frozen living person," the magazine quotes one expert, Derrick Pounder of the University of Dundee, as saying. "But drug levels don't remain static after death."

Use of the formula may have resulted in false convictions, the experts say. An Arizona man, for instance, was found guilty of murdering his wife by administering an overdose of cocaine in her system. In other cases, employers have fought workplace accident lawsuits by saying that the dead employee was intoxicated.

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FDA Set to Crack Down on 'Andro' Producers

The U.S. government on Thursday announced that it's cracking down on companies that manufacture, market, or distribute the performance-enhancing steroid precursor androstenedione, better known as "andro."

"We are sending letters to 23 companies telling them to stop selling these products as dietary supplements and warning them they could face enforcement options if they don't take appropriate steps," HealthDay quotes Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as saying at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

The warning letters state that the companies must stop selling any products containing andro unless they can offer proof the substances are safe, according to the HealthDay account.

The use of andro took off dramatically after baseball slugger Mark McGwire said he used it in 1998 while hitting a then-record-setting 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals. He has said he later quit the supplements.

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Patients Given Possibly Incorrect HIV Test Results

An estimated 460 patients at Maryland General Hospital may have been given incorrect hepatitis and HIV test results over a 14-month period and were not notified of the problem by the hospital, the Baltimore Sun reports.

State officials say that during the 14-month period of incorrect test results, which ended in August 2003, some people may have been told they were HIV-negative when they were actually HIV-positive. Others may have been informed they had a positive result on their HIV test when it was actually negative, the newspaper says.

A complaint filed by a former hospital worker led to an investigation by state officials. They found that personnel in the hospital's laboratory overrode controls in the testing equipment that indicated the test results might be wrong. The laboratory staff then mailed the results to the patients, the Sun reports.

The hospital's general president told the newspaper that hospital executives didn't know about the testing problem until they were notified by the state in January.

The hospital is notifying the patients and urging them to come to the hospital for a free re-test.

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EPA Investigates Microwave Popcorn Chemicals

The type and amount of chemicals released into the air when microwave popcorn is popped or opened are being studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A rare lung disease contracted by popcorn factory workers in four states has been linked to exposure to vapors from butter flavoring in microwave popcorn, the Associated Press reports.

But health officials say the popcorn poses no health threat to consumers who pop popcorn in their microwaves.

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has said it suspects the workers' health problems were caused by the chemical diacetyl. The EPA plans to study about 50 brands, batches and flavors of microwave popcorn.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it considers butter popcorn flavoring to be safe for consumers.

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Minors Hang Around Alcohol Web Sites: Study

Web sites run by alcohol companies have turned into a "cyber playground" for minors who are too young to drink, a new study concludes.

Alcohol company Web sites received nearly 700,000 visits from underage people from last July through December, according to Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. These sites regularly offer features like video games, music downloads, and alcohol-themed icons, according to the center's director, cited by the Associated Press.

The findings come despite past pledges from the industry not to target minors. "If a liquor store were this ineffective in policing underage visits, the community would be up in arms," center director Jim O'Hara tells the wire service.

Spokesman Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council calls the study a publicity stunt. He says industry ads and marketing materials have been reviewed and approved as targeting adults by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

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