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Health Highlights: Nov. 7, 2003

FDA Rebukes Illinois Report on Canadian Drugs Antibiotics Offered to Postal Workers in Anthrax Scare EPA May Drop Suits Against Alleged Clean-Air Violators U.S. Government Promises to Defend Abortion Law 1 Formerly Conjoined Twin Has Shunt Implanted

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

FDA Rebukes Illinois Report on Canadian Drugs

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday continued its attempt to stop the burgeoning number of Americans buying cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, rebuking an Illinois report that claims the state could save $91 million annually through the practice.

"We cannot and must not allow the Internet to become the 21st Century's snake oil outlet," writes FDA associate commissioner William Hubbard, in a letter to the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The letter recounts the frequently cited FDA belief that Canadian drug imports -- via the Internet, U.S. storefronts, or by crossing the border -- are dangerous because they are not subject to agency oversight, they could be outdated, contaminated, counterfeit or contain too much or too little of an active ingredient.

The letter claims that for the state to save $91 million each year, virtually every state employee eligible to purchase prescription drugs would have to buy them from Canada. A Blagojevich administration spokeswoman dismissed the criticism, the Associated Press reports.

On Thursday, a popular Internet operation based in Oklahoma that sells drugs from Canada was ordered closed by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan ordered Rx Depot to cease its operations. She also ordered the Tulsa-based firm to close 85 company-operated storefronts nationwide. In her ruling, Eagan said that while she is sympathetic to senior citizens who buy Canadian drugs because they can't afford to buy them at U.S. prices, "the defendants are able to offer lower prices only because they facilitate illegal activity determined by Congress to harm the public interest."

In a statement published on its Web site, the FDA said, "This ruling sends a clear signal that those who would put profit before safety will not be allowed to threaten the public health."

An estimated 1 million to 2 million Americans are now acquiring prescription drugs from Canadian sources, the AP reports.

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Antibiotics Offered to Postal Workers in Anthrax Scare

Workers at a Washington, D.C.-area Navy mail-sorting facility are being offered antibiotics as a precaution, following positive tests for anthrax at the complex earlier this week, the Associated Press reports.

The Naval Consolidated Mail Facility and 11 other area post offices remained closed Friday after being shut down a day earlier.

The Naval facility handles mail for an unspecified number of U.S. government agencies. Additional testing is being done to confirm or invalidate the preliminary test, results of which came back Wednesday.

A Navy spokesman told CNN that the level of anthrax detected was in the range of 100 to 140 spores, well below the infectious level that begins at about 10,000 spores.

All mail is zapped with germ-killing radiation before it enters the facility, CNN reports, so there is little chance of exposure to anthrax. Nonetheless, the Postal Service says it decided to offer the antibiotics to employees and close the 12 facilities in Washington, Maryland and Virginia "out of an abundance of caution."

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EPA May Drop Suits Against Alleged Clean-Air Violators

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted a new enforcement policy that could lead it to drop investigations into 50 alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act, The New York Times reports.

Under less stringent rules to take effect next month, the 10 power companies that own the plants where the alleged violations occurred appear to be off the hook, EPA lawyers tell the newspaper. The attorneys say the new rules would make their investigations almost impossible to pursue.

The changes, announced Tuesday, stemmed from recommendations by Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which cited industry complaints about the EPA's aggressive enforcement policies. Congressional critics, environmentalists, and some state officials in the Northeast call the changes a significant industry victory, the Times reports. The Bush administration says it's simply trying to ensure cost-effective improvements to air quality.

Officially, the EPA says a final decision hasn't been made on whether to drop all of the investigations, noting that each will be pursued on a case-by-case basis.

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U.S. Government Promises to Defend Abortion Law

Facing three court challenges, the Bush administration is vowing to vigorously defend the newly signed law that bans certain late-term abortions.

On Thursday, federal judges in San Francisco and New York blocked implementation of the law in some jurisdictions, adding to a Nebraska judge's similar ruling Wednesday.

In a statement, the U.S. Justice Department said it "will continue to strongly defend the law prohibiting partial birth abortions using every resource necessary."

Thursday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Casey in New York granted a request by seven doctors and the National Abortion Federation to block enforcement of the new ban on the late-term procedure.

While the ruling applies only to the plaintiffs, it could be significant. That's because the National Abortion Federation claims its member doctors perform half of all abortions done in the United States, the Associated Press reports.

Also Thursday, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in San Francisco ruled that the law appears unconstitutional because it provides no exceptions for the mother's health. A day earlier, a federal judge in Nebraska made a similar ruling that covers four abortion doctors licensed in 13 midwestern and eastern states.

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1 Formerly Conjoined Twin Has Shunt Implanted

Dallas doctors have downgraded the condition of one of the formerly conjoined Egyptian twins who was separated from his brother last month.

Ahmed Ibrahim returned to the operating room at Children's Medical Center Thursday to have a shunt implanted to drain excess spinal fluid, reports the Associated Press. His condition was downgraded to guarded.

On Oct. 12, doctors ended a 34-hour operation to separate 2-year-old Ahmed from his twin brother, Mohammed, who remains in good condition. The pair had been joined at the head.

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