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Health Highlights: Oct. 20, 2003

Poll: Americans Back Cheaper Imported Drugs Eli Lilly Fights to Limit Prescription Drugs From Canada Surgery Starts for Conjoined Twins Maternal Mortality Plagues Under-developed Nations WHO: SARS Virus Not Airborne British Prime Minister OK After Heart Episode

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

Poll: Americans Back Cheaper Imported Drugs

Two-thirds of Americans surveyed want Congress to make it legal to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Europe, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll concludes.

In addition, most people polled would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to provide prescription drug benefits to seniors. And eight in 10 respondents said providing health insurance to all Americans was more important than holding down taxes.

The survey found strong support for importing drugs, despite warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that it can't guarantee the safety of medications that it doesn't regulate. The agency says a recent spot inspection found that almost 90 percent of imported drug parcels contained unapproved or counterfeit drugs.

The poll of 1,000 respondents, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points, also found:

  • Six in 10 people preferred a national health system that guaranteed universal health coverage. Some 44 million Americans now lack health insurance, the Post reports.
  • Support for universal coverage dropped to less than 50 percent if it meant a limited choice of doctors or waiting lists for medical care.
  • Twice as many people in households earning more than $100,000 a year (68 percent) were happy with the present health-care system than were families earning under $20,000 (34 percent).

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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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Surgery Starts for Conjoined Twins

Surgeons in New York City began Monday the first of at least three operations to separate 18-month-old twin boys from the Philippines who are joined at the top of their heads.

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 surgeries could take several months to complete, doctors said.

The twins share a major vein that drains blood from the brain to the heart. The doctors plan to give it to one twin, and reroute other veins to replace it in the other boy, the wire service reports.

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, The New York Times reports.

Meanwhile, 2-year-old Egyptian twin boys who were separated in a 34-hour operation at Children's Medical Center Dallas (Texas) on Oct. 11 and 12 continue to show slow but steady improvement.

Mohamed Ibrahim was taken off a ventilator and was breathing on his own Sunday, and doctors hope to do the same with his brother Ahmed on Monday, the AP says.

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

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Maternal Mortality Plagues Under-developed Nations

India led a group of 13 developing countries that accounted for 70 percent of all maternal deaths in the world in 2000, a story in the Hindustan Times says.

India had the highest number of deaths -- 136,000 -- followed by Nigeria, with 37,000 deaths.

African women were 175 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in developed regions, according to the story, which was based on a new United Nations report. A woman living in sub-Sahara Africa has a one in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth. Meanwhile, one out of 2,800 women has the risk in developed nations, the report says.

Of the estimated 529,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2000, 95 percent occurred in Africa and Asia, while only four percent took place in Latin America and the Caribbean, and less than one percent in the more developed regions of the world.

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WHO: SARS Virus Not Airborne

There is no evidence to suggest that the SARS virus can be spread through the air by coughing or sneezing, the World Health Organization says in a new report.

Unlike the flu or measles, SARS is transmitted by direct contact via the eyes, nose, and mouth with virus-laden droplets, according to an Associated Press analysis of the new report.

Day 10 of infection appeared to be the riskiest day for transmission, the report continues. It some cases during the initial epidemic, it appears that health workers contracted the virus even though they had been wearing protective masks, gowns, gloves, and eye protection.

In a demographic analysis of the recent initial outbreak, which killed 774 people and infected nearly 8,100, the report concludes that children were rarely infected by adults or other children. Likewise, there were only two reported cases worldwide of transmission from children to adults.

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British Prime Minister OK After Heart Episode

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was back at his desk Monday after being treated for a rapid, irregular heartbeat over the weekend, CBS News reports.

Blair, 50, was rushed to a London hospital Sunday and received electrical stimulation to stabilize his heartbeat. Though Blair's been told to take it easy for the next 24 hours, a spokesman declares him "fit, fine, in good spirits and 100 percent recovered."

The spokesman, on condition of anonymity, also tells CBS that the prime minister is expected to have a complete medical checkup within two weeks.

The Times of London says Blair exercises regularly and hasn't smoked since 1980.

While irregular heartbeats are more common among the elderly, about 3.9 percent of British men aged 45-55 have the condition, the CBS report says, citing the British Heart Foundation.

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