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Health Highlights: Oct. 4, 2003

Canadian Drug Exporter Readies FDA Response Breast Cancer Being Diagnosed Sooner Salmonella Concerns Prompt Beef Jerky Recall Experts Consider Ways to Detect Fake Drugs NYC Helps Solve Smallpox Mystery

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

Canadian Drug Exporter Readies FDA Response

A Canadian exporter says it is willing to change its drug delivery procedures and may stop selling some prescribed medications -- including diabetes drugs -- in the United States but vows not to stop serving the U.S. market.

CanaRX President G. Anthony Howard told the Associated Press that the company plans to respond Tuesday to a cease-and-desist letter from the FDA. He said he may curtail the use of his Detroit post office box and stop personally transporting drugs that need refrigeration -- such as insulin -- across the border from his Windsor, Ontario, offices.

"We are going to do as much as we can, but we're not going to stop shipping medications," he said.

FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard said that he'll have to see CanaRX's proposed changes before making a decision, but that rudimentary shifts in drug delivery may not be enough to correct the legal problems.

"I don't know as CanaRX can fix the problem because they've got sort of a fundamental violation here, which is bringing in unapproved drugs," said Hubbard.

The confrontation is taking place as Congress debates measures that would legalize the importation of prescription drugs from Canada as part of a broad Medicare bill.

In July, the city of Springfield, Mass., became the first to offer a voluntary program to employees and retirees that would allow the city to save as much as $9 million by buying dramatically cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

About three weeks ago, the FDA told Springfield Mayor Mike Albano that it was sending a warning letter to CanaRX. The Justice Department last month filed suit against Rx Depot, another company involved in exporting Canadian drugs.

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Breast Cancer Being Diagnosed Sooner

The death rate from breast cancer continues to decline, as more than 90 percent of cases are now being diagnosed in their early stages when the chances for survival are much higher, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports.

The society's bi-annual breast cancer report offers a mixed bag of news. On the downside, it finds that African-American women are now 30 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. While the reasons aren't fully understood, the society cites socio-economic factors, including white women having more access to diagnostic testing like mammography, and better therapies.

"[White women's] breast cancers, therefore, are diagnosed at an earlier stage and treated more aggressively," ACS vice president Dr. Michael Thun says in a statement.

Breast cancer remains the most frequently diagnosed cancer in American women, with an estimated 211,300 cases expected in 2003. It accounts for nearly one in three cases of all types of cancer among women, the ACS says, and is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women, behind lung cancer.

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Salmonella Concerns Prompt Beef Jerky Recall

Chavez/Old Santa Fe Trail, an Albuquerque, N.M., firm, is recalling 22,000 pounds of beef jerky that may be contaminated with salmonella, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service says.

The products subject to recall are:

  • "General Store, All Natural Route 66 Beef Jerky" in peppered, green chili, red chili, and regular flavors.

  • "A Taste of New Mexico, Old Santa Fe Trail Beef Jerky, No Preservatives" in green chili, red chili, peppered, and original flavors.

All products were produced between May 1 and Sept. 26, and bear the establishment number "EST. 13343" inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were distributed to retail stores and via mail order nationwide. In addition, consumers may have purchased affected products from a vendor at the New Mexico State Fair.

Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially for infants, the frail or elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.

For more information, contact Angela Postlethwait, company assistant manager, at 505-255-7950.

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Experts Consider Ways to Detect Fake Drugs

The growing threat of counterfeit drugs poses a real danger to the American people, warns the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has appointed a panel of experts to recommend solutions.

Significant instances of worthless fakes being passed off as genuine has grown to more than 20 reported cases a year from about five per year in the late 1990s, The New York Times reports.

The counterfeits may contain inactive substances like water, wrong ingredients, incorrect doses or contaminants. The more expensive medications for conditions like AIDS or cancer often make attractive targets. The newspaper cites one case in which aspirin was substituted for a schizophrenia drug.

The panel's preliminary report, released Thursday, recommends the agency consider solutions including special perfumes, embedded microchips, color-shifting inks and irreproducible hologram-like images that can only be seen when the packaging is turned a certain way.

The report notes that the safeguards may have to be changed periodically to keep up with the counterfeiters.

It's not known exactly how much counterfeit medicine has reached the public, since fakes may go undetected unless they make people sick. At a Thursday news conference, FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan estimated the rate was less than one percent, adding that consumers who buy medicines in legitimate drug stores have little to worry about, the Times reports.

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NYC Helps Solve Smallpox Mystery

Last year, the Bush Administration's campaign to vaccinate more than 500,000 health workers against smallpox was stopped in its tracks when reports surfaced about some recipients suffering heart attacks just after they got their shots.

Though the vaccine had been recognized for a number of well-publicized potential dangers, heart problems weren't one of them.

To help clear up the mystery, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began a review of more than 80,000 death records stemming from a 1947 outbreak of the killer disease. Now the results are in, and the department says there's no evidence that the smallpox vaccine caused an increase in cardiac-related deaths.

The vaccine administered to quell the 1947 outbreak contained the same viral strain as the vaccine used today, the department says in a statement. During a three-week period from April to May 1947, 6.3 million New Yorkers were vaccinated, resulting in 12 cases of smallpox and two deaths.

As a side note, the department says none of the 342 people vaccinated in New York City in 2002-2003 experienced any serious side effects.

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