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Health Highlights: Nov. 18, 2003

U.S. Scientists Begin First Human Test of Ebola Vaccine U.S., Canada Seek Curbs on Cross-Border Drug Sales University Settles Liver Transplant Whistleblower Suit Large Breast Tumors on the Increase Rare Infection Could Affect U.S. Blood Supply

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

U.S. Scientists Begin First Human Test of Ebola Vaccine

American scientists on Tuesday began the first human trial of a vaccine designed to prevent Ebola infection.

The vaccine was designed by scientists from the Vaccine Research Center at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The vaccine does not contain any infectious material from Ebola, which is one of the most deadly viruses in the world and kills 50 percent to 80 percent of those exposed to it.

The study will include 27 people between the ages of 18 and 44, none of whom will be exposed to the Ebola virus. Six of them will receive a placebo and 21 will receive the experimental vaccine. The study volunteers will receive three injections over two months and will be followed for a year.

Scientists will examine the volunteers' blood to look for signs of immune system reaction to the vaccine. Researchers will also assess the vaccine's safety, according to a news release from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.


U.S., Canada Seek Curbs on Cross-Border Drug Sales

Canada and the United States have agreed to share information on controversial Internet pharmacies that sell prescription drugs across the border to Americans, the Toronto Star reports.

The agreement, in the form of a memo of understanding, was to be signed by U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Mark McClellan in Ottawa Tuesday, where he planned to hold talks with his counterparts at Health Canada, the paper says.

The two countries are attempting to curb the burgeoning flow of less-expensive Canadian drugs across the U.S. border.

An FDA official tells the Boston Globe that the agreement is expected to target firms like CanaRx Services Inc., an Ontario-based prescription service that currently delivers drugs to city employees in Springfield, Mass.

While the FDA for months has claimed that CanaRx's business is illegal because it exposes Americans to unregulated and potentially dangerous drugs, FDA officials concede they have little power to stop companies like CanaRx without Canadian help.

The Star reports that Canadian officials will commit to passing along more information about enforcement activities and that both countries will move to share more reports of adverse reactions to new drugs.

"Internet pharmacies is just one component of it," Health Canada spokesperson Krista Apse told the newspaper.

Because of Canadian controls, drug prices north of the border are 20 percent to 80 percent cheaper than their American equivalents, surveys have found.


University Settles Liver Transplant Whistleblower Suit

A whistleblower suit that alleged fraud in the liver transplant program at the University of Illinois at Chicago has been settled for more than $2.3 million.

The university agreed Monday to settle the suit. The federal and state governments collected twice the actual damages under the settlement, the Associated Press reports.

The University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center was accused of improperly diagnosing and hospitalizing certain patients in the late 1990s in order to make the patients eligible for liver transplants before they really were eligible.

The improperly diagnosed patients were moved ahead of other patients waiting to receive new livers, the AP reports.

The university issued a statement that it had admitted no liability as part of the settlement and said it disputes all allegations and claims made in the government's civil action.


Large Breast Tumors on the Increase

A growing number of women are being diagnosed with large breast tumors that are more likely to be fatal than smaller malignancies, the Associated Press reports of a new study sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

While the reasons for the increase -- chiefly among white women -- aren't known, obesity and hormone replacement therapy are prime suspects, the AP reports.

While small breast tumors are still much more common, the study found that the incidence of large tumors rose by about 2 percent every year between 1992 and 2000. Three years ago, there were 6.3 cases of breast tumors larger than five centimeters for every 100,000 white women in the United States, compared with 5.6 cases in 1992.

With American cases of obesity soaring, the cancer society says being overweight contributes to up to half of all cases of breast cancer deaths among older women, the AP reports.

A more recent suspect is hormone replacement therapy, which was widely popular until a 2002 study found that the menopausal treatment increases the risk of breast cancer, heart attack and stroke. The just-released American Cancer Society research found that breast tumors were slightly larger, on average, among hormone replacement users, the AP reports.


Rare Infection Could Affect U.S. Blood Supply

A parasitic infection that's rare in the United States but common in Latin America could pose a danger to the U.S. blood supply because there's no test to detect it, The New York Times reports.

While only nine cases of Chagas disease have been transmitted by blood transfusion or tissue transplant in North America in the past 20 years, more than 18 million people in Latin America are said to be infected. Some 50,000 people in Mexico, Central America and South America die from the disease each year, the newspaper says.

A test to detect the disease isn't expected until next year at the earliest. The newspaper cites a Chagas expert at the American Red Cross, who says the risk of acquiring the disease through infected blood is only about 1 in 25,000.

Since 1989, several expert panels to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have recommended that all donated blood be screened for the disease. But no test has been approved yet, and the companies working on one concede they are under no pressure to finish their work, the Times reports.

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