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Health Highlights: May 26, 2004

Court Upholds Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law New Mexico Reports First Human West Nile Case British Company Announces Mad Cow Blood Test Drug Prices Outstrip Inflation, Study Finds Cicada Symphony Louder Than Lawn Mower China's SARS Vaccine Shows Initial Promise

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

Court Upholds Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law

A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled against a Bush administration challenge to Oregon's assisted suicide law -- the only one in the United States that allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to people who are terminally ill.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the U.S. Attorney General can't sanction or hold doctors in Oregon criminally responsible for prescribing such overdoses, the Associated Press reported.

"The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician assisted suicide," Judge Richard Tallman wrote.

Attorney General John Ashcroft's action to target Oregon doctors who help terminally ill patients take their lives far exceeded the scope of his authority under federal law, Tallman noted.

The Oregon law was approved by voters in 1994.

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New Mexico Reports First Human West Nile Case

New Mexico has reported its first human case of West Nile virus, which appears to be the first human case in the United States this year.

The victim, a man from San Juan county, suffered only mild symptoms from the mosquito-borne virus and has recovered, state health officials said Wednesday. Health Secretary Patricia Montoya told the Associated Press that the case indicates an early start to the West Nile virus season. New Mexico had 209 confirmed West Nile cases last year, and four deaths from West Nile infections.

There was one previous human West Nile case reported this year in Ohio. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site says further testing revealed that the person did not have West Nile virus.

The first confirmed human West Nile case in the United States last year was reported in July in South Carolina. The virus appeared in the United States in New York in 1999 and has since spread to many parts of the country.

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British Company Announces Mad Cow Blood Test

A British company says that it has developed a blood test for the human form of mad cow disease and has already used it on two people suspected of having the disease.

The test detected signs of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in one person, who still has symptoms, but did not detect signs of vCJD in the second person, who no longer has symptoms, BBC News Online reported. The results were presented at a conference in Paris.

Currently, vCJD can only be confirmed by testing brains of people who have died.

The company, Microsens, plans to conduct further tests on people suspected of having the disease. The test is still in the early stages of development and much more work is required until a blood test for vCJD might be commercially available, company officials said.

A study released earlier this week said that as many as 3,800 Britons may be carriers of vCJD, a number that's much greater than previous estimates. Since it emerged in the United Kingdom in 1995, 141 people have died from vCJD, BBC News Online reported.

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Drug Prices Outstrip Inflation, Study Finds

Prices for the most popular brand-name drugs used by older Americans rose at three times the rate of inflation in 2003, new AARP-sponsored research has found.

The study measured changes in the prices that drug makers charged wholesalers over a four-year period starting in the year 2000, according to HealthDay.

Prices for widely used brands rose 4.1 percent, on average, in 2000, and 6.9 percent in 2003, while inflation fell from 3.3 percent to 2.2 percent over the same period, the report said.

And the average cost to consumers for top brands nearly doubled from 2000 to 2003 -- rising from $33.76 to $60.38, the authors estimated. This means the typical older American who takes three drugs would have paid $101 more in 2000 and $181 more in 2003 if the higher prices were passed along, AARP noted.

Among individual brand names, a 10-milligram dose of the cholesterol medication Lipitor rose 6 percent in 2003, almost triple the 2.2 inflation rate that same year. And a 75-milligram dose of the blood thinner Plavix rose 7.8 percent each year covered by the study.

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Cicada Symphony Louder Than a Lawn Mower

Visit the Middle Atlantic states and you'll understand where the expression "noisy little buggers" may have come from.

The menacing-looking but harmless insects called cicadas are marking the end of their 17-year cyclical hibernation by surfacing from underground and flexing their wings. Males searching desperately for females are belting out a mating call that packs enough sonic punch to drown out lawnmowers, highway traffic, and softball players hollering for pop flies, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Scientists have measured the remarkably powerful sound produced by the inch-long bugs at about 90 decibels, loud enough to violate some public environmental and nuisance laws, the newspaper said. At top volumes, the din even outpaces the roar of a lawnmower.

The males make the noise by flexing two drumlike organs on both sides of their abdomens. Other abdominal equipment amplifies the noise even more before the sounds are released for the listening pleasure of female cicadas.

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China's SARS Vaccine Shows Initial Promise

Four Chinese volunteers who are testing the world's first SARS vaccine have passed the first hurdle -- a three-day post-inoculation hospitalization during which they were monitored for any symptoms of the flu-like menace.

No adverse reactions were reported among the four in the 72 hours after they were injected at a Beijing hospital over the weekend, reported China's official Xinhua news agency.

The volunteers were released to their own homes, and will be monitored for an additional seven months. They are among the first group of 36 healthy volunteers aged 21 to 40 who will test the vaccine.

The four initial testers -- three men and one women -- are all students at Beijing universities, Xinhua said.

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