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Health Highlights: Oct. 19, 2003

Safety of U.S. Prescription Drug System Under Attack: Report Eli Lilly Fights to Limit Prescription Drugs From Canada Postal Workers Sue Maker of Anthrax Drug Over Side EffectsFDA Approves New Alzheimer's Drug 1 Pair of Conjoined Twins Readied for Surgery, As Another Recovers

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

Safety of U.S. Prescription Drug System Under Attack: Report

A growing illegal trade in prescription drugs has seriously weakened the safety of the United States' once-secure system of distributing prescription medicines, the Washington Post reports.

The result: Many Americans are getting medicines that are dangerous, diluted or ineffective. For instance, cancer patients are receiving watered-down drugs. Teens are overdosing on narcotics ordered from the Internet. And AIDS clinics are getting fake HIV medicines, the newspaper says.

In the first installment Sunday of a five-part series that is based on a year-long investigation, the newspaper says:

  • "Networks of middlemen, felons and other opportunists operating out of storefronts and garages fraudulently obtain deeply discounted medicines intended for nursing homes and hospices... Those drugs are ultimately sold to unwitting patients."
  • Counterfeiters "use pill-punching machines and special inks to produce near-perfect copies of the most popular and expensive drugs."
  • "Pharmaceutical peddlers take advantage of lax regulations to move millions of prescription drugs into the United States from Canada, Mexico and elsewhere."
  • "Rogue medical merchants set up Internet pharmacies that serve as pipelines for narcotics, selling to drug abusers and others who never see doctors in person or undergo tests. "

This "shadow market constitutes a new form of organized crime that now threatens public health," the Post says.

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Eli Lilly Fights to Limit Prescription Drugs From Canada

Eli Lilly and Co. has become the latest pharmaceutical company to try to prevent its drugs from being sold to American consumers from Canada at prices far below those available in the United States.

Lilly, based in Indianapolis, has written 24 Canadian drug wholesalers, telling them it will limit sales of its drugs to amounts the company estimates are sufficient to supply the Canadian market only, the Indianapolis Star reports.

Previously, drug makers Pfizer of New York and GlaxoSmithKline, based in Great Britain, took similar steps against Canadian pharmacies that sell drugs to U.S. customers.

The reason: Drugs from Canada, even those manufactured by U.S. companies and re-imported, cost up to 60 percent less than what American pharmacies charge because of Canadian price controls and a favorable exchange rate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the importation of unregulated prescription drugs poses potentially serious health risks to U.S. consumers.

But a growing legion of U.S. governors, members of Congress and presidential candidates -- as well as millions of senior citizens who live on fixed incomes and are often hard-pressed to pay for needed medications -- want to open the border to let Americans legally buy prescription drugs from Canada.

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Postal Workers Sue Maker of Anthrax Drug Over Side Effects

Four U.S. Postal Service workers who took the antibiotic Cipro during the anthrax-by-mail attacks two years ago have sued the drug's maker, claiming the drug caused harmful side effects.

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in New Jersey on Friday, contends that the Bayer Corp. failed to disclose information that Cipro could damage nerves and tendons, the Associated Press reports.

Thousands of people who may have been exposed to anthrax were encouraged to take Cipro or doxycycline, another antibiotic. Anthrax was found in mail or mail processing facilities in Washington, D.C., New York City, New Jersey, Florida and Connecticut, the wire service says.

The attacks killed five people and sickened 17. No arrests have been made.

The four New Jersey postal employees worked at the Hamilton postal facility, where at least four anthrax-contaminated letters were processed. The building has been shut since 2001, the AP says.

Bayer officials said they were unaware of the suit and had no immediate comment, according to the wire service.

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FDA Approves New Alzheimer's Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug for people with late-stage Alzheimer's disease.

Friday's decision to approve NAMENDA (memantine) follows the recommendation of the agency's expert panel, which concluded that although the drug doesn't prevent the disease, it appears to slow the brain deterioration that robs victims of memory and other cognitive functions. Still, in recommending the drug late last month, the advisors worried that the medication could give false hope to patients' families.

This is the first drug to be approved for the most serious, late-stage symptoms of Alzheimer's. Known as an N-methyl-D-asparate antagonist, it appears to block the action of the chemical glutamate, which has been shown to damage nerve cells.

The drug was tested in a series of clinical trials in the United States and Latvia involving 800 patients. Those on memantine appeared to be better able to eat, dress, bathe, travel, shop and perform household chores than those on a non-medicinal placebo.

The most frequently reported side effects included dizziness, headache and constipation.

The drug's American marketer, Forest Laboratories, says the medication should be available in January.

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1 Pair of Conjoined Twins Ready for Surgery; Another Recovers

Eighteen-month-old twin boys from the Philippines who are joined at the top of their heads will begin a series of separation surgeries Monday in New York City that could take several months to complete, their doctors said.

The surgeons' goal is that Carl and Clarence Aguirre can "live viable, independent lives," Dr. James Goodrich, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Montefiore Children's Hospital in the Bronx, told the Associated Press.

The first of the operations is scheduled for Monday.

The boys have gained five pounds in the last five weeks, eating a special diet of pureed food. Their brains appear to be almost entirely separate within their skulls, though they share major veins that must be separated, The New York Times reports.

"We believe that we can do this, but at the same time we are cognizant of the risks," the AP quoted Goodrich as saying. "We're aware that we could lose one or both."

Meanwhile, 2-year-old Egyptian twin boys who were separated in a 34-hour operation at Children's Medical Center Dallas (Texas) last weekend continue to show slow but steady improvement.

Mohamed and Ahmed Ibrahim remained in critical but stable condition Sunday. Mohamed is no longer receiving coma-inducing drugs to reduce the risk of brain swelling, and he was taken off a ventilator and was breathing on his own Sunday. Doctors were cutting back on the drugs for Ahmed, but they temporarily increased the dosage again after some twitching on his right side indicated the possibility of seizures, according to the Times.

In both cases, charitable organizations have raised money to help pay for some of the twins' medical bills, the newspaper reports.

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