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Health Highlights: Oct. 22, 2003

Glimmer of Hope for Breast Cancer Vaccine Study: 1 in 5 Prisoners Is Mentally Ill Criminal Probe Launched Into Infant's Autopsy U.S. Seeks Canada's Help in Stemming Prescription Drug Flow Comatose Florida Woman Being Fed Again Large Companies Employ Many Uninsured: Report

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

Glimmer of Hope for Breast Cancer Vaccine

A small study of a potential vaccine that would prevent recurring breast cancer has had encouraging results so far, researchers report.

Researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have given 14 women the vaccine so far, and have detected signs that it has triggered an immune system response that could prevent the disease from returning, according to the Associated Press.

All the women had had conventional treatment for breast cancer that had spread to their lymph nodes, so they were at a high risk of having the cancer return, according to the AP.

Two of the women had breast cancer return, but they had initially had the weakest response to the vaccine in the first place, researchers said.

Researchers are hoping that vaccines are a new weapon in the fight against cancer. A vaccine against cervical cancer has had promising results.

The research was to be presented Wednesday in Chicago of the American College of Surgeons.


Study: 1 in 5 Prisoners Is Mentally Ill

There are more mentally ill people in the nation's prisons and jails than there are in mental hospitals, a new study has found.

Approximately one in five of the 2.1 million prisoners in the United States have serious mental disorders, according to the study by the Human Rights Watch.

The New York Times reports that the number of incarcerated mentally ill people is rising sharply, and that the percentage of ill female inmates is much higher than that among men.

The group concluded that jails and prisons are becoming a default mental health system, in large part because so many hospitals have closed and the prison population has quadrupled in the last 30 years, the Times reports. Only about 80,000 people are housed in mental hospitals.

"I think elected officials have been all too willing to let the incarcerated population grow by leaps and bounds without paying much attention to who in fact is being incarcerated," Jamie Fellner, an author of the report and director of United States programs at Human Rights Watch, told the Times.


Criminal Probe Launched in Infant's Autopsy

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly said his office has launched an unprecedented criminal investigation of the state medical examiner's office over the botched autopsy of an infant.

The Boston Herald reports that the probe will look into whether the infant's eyes were mishandled during the autopsy. Sources told the paper that investigators were trying to determine whether the medical examiner's office either purposefully or accidentally ordered an examination of the wrong set of eyes.

According to the Herald, investigators found a discrepancy in the eyes when they examined the report. They were looking to determine whether the baby died of natural causes or was the victim of shaken baby syndrome. The report, done in 2002, concluded that the baby died of SIDS, and that no criminal probe was needed.

The paper says that eyes are crucial in determining shaken baby syndrome because blood pools there. The report didn't say the baby's eyes were removed, according to the Boston Globe, leading investigators to suspect the eyes were from another cadaver.


U.S. Seeks Canada's Help in Stemming Prescription Drug Flow

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is asking for help from its Canadian counterpart to stem the growing flow of cheaper prescription drugs from north of the border, the Associated Press reports.

The FDA, conceding it has little power to enforce U.S. laws if they're violated by Canadian firms, wants Health Canada to intervene. The FDA accuses one company in particular, Ontario-based CanaRx, of running a mail-order pharmacy that sells to American customers in violation of U.S. laws.

In July, the city of Springfield, Mass., announced it was beginning a voluntary program to offer cheaper Canadian drugs to city employees. Springfield's mayor said the move, with orders filled by CanaRx, would save city workers $9 million annually. The FDA quickly protested, saying it had no control over the Canadian imports, which the agency said could include illegally labeled or counterfeit medications.

Following Springfield's lead, the governors of two states -- Illlinois and Minnesota -- have begun the process of making Canadian drugs available to state employees.

In September, the FDA warned the Canadian firm that it had until Oct. 21 to comply with U.S. laws. CanaRx says it has since changed its delivery policies and certain pages on its Web site, the AP reports.


Comatose Florida Woman Being Fed Again

A brain-damaged Florida woman at the center of a 6-year-old right-to-die battle was being fed liquids Wednesday on orders from Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush's order Tuesday evening to reinsert a feeding tube into Terri Schiavo came an hour after the state legislature gave him the unprecedented right to circumvent the ruling of a state judge, who six days earlier had ordered the tube removed. The judge had sided with Schiavo's husband against the wishes of her parents, who have mounted a high-profile campaign to keep their comatose daughter alive.

Schiavo, 39, has been in a vegetative state since a heart attack in 1990. Court-appointed doctors say she has no hope of recovery.

Since the judge's ruling, Schiavo had gone without food or water for six days. Doctors had predicted she would die within two weeks once the feeding tube was removed.

An attorney for her husband, Michael Schiavo, says his client will appeal the legality of Bush's order and the legislature's actions.

Lawyer George Felos says Terri Schiavo had been showing signs of organ failure before the legislature's emergency bill to reinsert her feeding tube was passed, the Associated Press reports.

A spokeswoman for the hospital where she's being cared for refused to release information about Schiavo's condition, the AP says.


Large Companies Employ Many Uninsured: Report

One-third of uninsured U.S. workers are employed by big companies with more than 500 employees, according to a new study by the Commonwealth Fund.

That's up from 25 percent in 1987, even though larger companies are more likely to provide insurance for employees than are smaller firms, the private research foundation's survey found. Low-income workers are most likely to have no coverage.

Some 44 million American workers lack health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Commonwealth Fund report cites the poor economy, soaring health-care costs, and declines in manufacturing and union jobs as contributing to the problem.


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