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Health Highlights: Nov. 26, 2004

Flu Pandemic Will Kill Millions, U.N. Experts Predict Cigarettes Cost Smokers, Society $40 a Pack: Study U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Arguments China Approves Human Tests of Experimental AIDS Vaccine Fla. Voters Approve Three-Strikes Law for Doctors

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

Flu Pandemic Will Kill Millions, U.N. Experts Predict

Bird flu will trigger an influenza pandemic among people that could kill up to 7 million, experts from the United Nations' World Health Organization predict.

The experts, meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, wouldn't attempt to predict a time frame, but said a pandemic was all but inevitable, according to an account from CNN. Pandemics occur when a new germ or strain emerges for which people have no immunity or vaccine. An inoculation to protect people against bird flu isn't expected until March of next year at the earliest, CNN reported.

"Even with the best case scenario the pandemic will cause a public health emergency with estimates which will put the number of deaths in the range of 2 million and 7 million, predicted Klaus Stohr of the WHO Global Influenza program.

His dire warning preceded a two-day meeting of regional experts, who plan to discuss how to prepare for the next global flu outbreak. Three pandemics occurred during the 20th century, the worst of which in 1918-19 killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, CNN said.

A deadly bird flu strain that emerged this year in Vietnam and Thailand killed 32 people and led to the slaughter of millions of chickens and other fowl throughout Asia. Experts worry that bird flu will combine with a human form of the virus to create a super strain for which people have no protection.

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Cigarettes Cost Smokers, Society $40 a Pack: Study

Smokers and society at large pay about $40 in health care costs, insurance, taxes, and lost earnings for every pack of cigarettes smoked, health economists estimate from new research.

The estimate is based on lifetime costs for a person who begins smoking at age 24 and continues the habit for about 60 years, concluded researchers from Duke University and the University of Florida. Smokers themselves pay about $33 of the tab, their families $5.44 and society about $1.44 per pack, the Associated Press reported of the authors' conclusions.

The researchers studied data including Social Security earnings histories dating to 1951, the wire service said.

Ironically, the costs to society via private pensions, Social Security and Medicare are actually less than the authors would have thought, since as study co-author Frank Sloan put it, "Smokers die at a younger age and don't draw on the funds they've paid into those systems."

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U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Arguments

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will begin hearing arguments in a case that will decide whether patients in 11 states can legally use marijuana for medical reasons.

The court has to decide whether states have the power to allow the use of drugs that are banned by the federal government, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont and Washington all have laws that allow the use of medical marijuana, which can't be sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.

The Bush Administration contends that such laws violate federal drug laws and that there is no medical value in marijuana.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled against clubs that distributed medical marijuana. But that decision didn't cover whether the federal government could prevent states from establishing their own laws regarding the use of medical marijuana.

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China Approves Human Test of AIDS Vaccine

The Chinese government has approved human clinical trials of an experimental AIDS vaccine. The government also said it would speed up approvals of new drugs to fight AIDS.

State Television said that 30 volunteers aged 18 to 50 would take part in this first test, designed to test the safety of the vaccine. More details about the test are to be released later, Ireland Online reported.

The vaccine was developed by Chinese scientists who have been studying the genetics of the AIDS virus since 1996. The vaccine was injected into a monkey and there were no abnormal reactions.

Health experts say that China could have 10 million HIV-infected people by 2010 unless it takes urgent action to halt the spread of the virus.

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Fla. Voters Approve Three-Strikes Law for Docs

Florida doctors who suffer three malpractice judgments will automatically lose their medical license under a new law approved by voters in that state.

The three-strikes law could result in a deluge of malpractice suits, some legal experts warned. And doctors charge it could scare doctors away from Florida and force some doctors to concede to quick malpractice settlements in order to avoid having a incur a malpractice "strike," the Associated Press reported.

"It has branded the state as probably the most unfriendly state for physicians," Dr. Robert Yelverton, a Tampa obstetrician and gynecologist, told the AP.

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