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Health Highlights: May 24, 2004

Coalition Pushes Drug Discount Cards Restless Leg Syndrome Underdiagnosed Can Aspirin During Pregnancy Reduce Sex Drive in Male Offspring? Mad Cow-Like Proteins Found in Sheep Muscle Breast Cancer in Men on the Rise: Study China Begins Testing SARS Vaccine

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

Coalition Pushes Drug Discount Cards

A coalition of 68 groups has launched a nationwide campaign to encourage about 5.5 million low-income Medicare beneficiaries to get drug discount cards and an accompanying $1,200 worth of drug subsidies this year and in 2005.

The Access to Benefits Coalition includes groups that lobby on behalf of Hispanic Americans, blacks and the elderly, The New York Times reported.

Some Democrats charge that the drug card program is confusing and doesn't offer users any major savings. But the coalition leaders say the drug cards do have value for low-income Medicare recipients because the cards provide access to drug subsidies of $600 this year and another $600 next year.

It's estimated that 7.2 million Medicare beneficiaries qualify for the drug card. But the Bush administration has predicted that 4.7 million people will enroll, the Times reported.

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Restless Leg Syndrome Underdiagnosed

Few people with restless leg syndrome are properly diagnosed by their doctor, even though the problem affects about one in 10 people, according to a study based on surveys of 23,052 people in five countries.

The research, to be released Tuesday, found that many patients and physicians don't recognize the symptoms of restless leg syndrome, which causes leg discomfort and sleep problems, the Associated Press reported.

People with the syndrome experience uncomfortable sensations in their legs, especially when they're trying to go to sleep.

The U.S. government has not yet approved any medication specifically for the treatment of restless leg syndrome. Current treatments include drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease and epilepsy, as well as tranquilizers and opiates.

The new study, funded by drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, will be published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

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Can Aspirin During Pregnancy Cut Sex Drive in Male Offspring?

Male children of mothers who take painkillers such as aspirin while they're pregnant may experience reduced sex drive, according to U.S. scientists.

In research with rats, University of Maryland researchers found that painkiller drugs such as aspirin interfered with male sexual behavior. The researchers say if this also proves to be the case in humans, pregnant women should not use common painkillers when they're pregnant, BBC News Online reported.

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that painkillers can block the synthesis of a chemical called prostaglandin-E2.

Male rats exposed during pregnancy or as newborns to drugs that blocked production of this chemical were less sexually active as adults and also had brains that were structured more like the brains of female rats.

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Mad Cow-Like Proteins Found in Sheep Muscle

Malformed proteins called prions that are thought to cause brain-wasting diseases like mad cow have been found in low concentrations in sheep muscle, French scientists reported.

But the researchers at the National Veterinary School in Toulouse emphasized that the findings did not mean that lamb or mutton posed any danger to people, according to The New York Times.

Up to now, the proteins had been found exclusively in animal brains and other body parts that people don't normally eat. The researchers downplayed their findings to some degree, noting that the muscle prions were found in one five-thousandth the concentration previously detected in some sheep brains. The animals also were infected with a different type of prion than the one that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the formal name for mad cow disease.

And the researchers said it is very unlikely that a person could be infected by lamb or mutton that has passed through the digestive juices of a human stomach and intestines, the newspaper reported.

Still, they urged governments to begin more extensive screening programs to minimize the chances of disease exposure to consumers.

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Breast Cancer in Men on the Rise

Instances of breast cancer in men, though still rare, have jumped significantly over the past quarter century, University of Texas researchers have found, according to HealthDay.

Though breast cancer among males represented only 0.6 percent of all cases of the disease, the incidence rose from 0.86 to 1.08 cases per 100,000 men from 1973 to 1998, according to the researchers at the school's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. But in the May 24 online edition of the journal Cancer, the researchers noted that the increase was not as dramatic as the corresponding jump in female breast cancer cases over the same period.

The study also found that men tended to be diagnosed at an older age -- 67 years, versus 62 years for women. For both genders, risk increased as the subjects got older, and stage-for-stage, there was no difference in survival, the researchers said.

Among all cancers in men, breast cancer represented less than 1 percent of them, the scientists added.

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China Begins Testing SARS Vaccine

China has begun the first human trials of a vaccine for SARS, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

Four volunteers -- three men and one woman -- were injected over the weekend with either the vaccine or a non-medicinal placebo. "During two hours of observation after the inoculation, no abnormal reaction was observed as they left [Beijing's] China - Japan Friendship Hospital," the news agency reported.

The volunteers will be monitored for possible reactions each day for the first three days, and will be observed less extensively for a total of 210 days, Xinhau said, without providing details.

The four are among the first group of 36 healthy volunteers ages 21 to 40 who have been selected for testing, the news agency said.

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