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Health Highlights: Oct. 9, 2003

West Nile Virus Structure IdentifiedHeart Patient: I Save Big Bucks Using Drugs From CanadaFDA: Food Manufacturers Have to Register U.S. Smoking Decline Falling Short Health Officials Worry About SARS Worries FDA Cites Diet Supplement Firms for Misleading Claims

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

West Nile Virus Structure Identified

It's not a cure for West Nile virus, but it's a start.

Scientists at Purdue University say they've broken down all the elements of the often-fatal West Nile virus and have replicated its structure. This is a major step in creating the proper medicines to fight it, they say.

"We can now clearly understand how these proteins interact with one another," says Richard J. Kuhn, a professor of biological sciences in Purdue's School of Science. "We can't cure West Nile yet, but we can now start thinking about how to interfere with these interactions, which could be a key to stopping the infection's progress."

The report appears in Friday's edition of the magazine Science.

The Purdue researchers used cryoelectron microscopy and other advanced imaging techniques, and broke the virus down into three types of proteins. "From the structure, we now know, essentially, how the major sets of protein molecules interlock with each other chemically," Kuhn says. "Armed with this knowledge, scientists might now conceive of ways to interrupt the viral assembly process."

The virus has progressed steadily westward and south down the east coast since it was first found in New York City in 1999. This year, as of Wednesday, there have been 5,861 human cases and 115 deaths. Colorado leads the nation this year with almost 2,050 reported cases and 38 deaths.

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Heart Patient: I Save Big Bucks Using Drugs From Canada

While the U.S. government claims that using prescription drugs from Canada is illegal, a heart transplant patient says it's an economic life-saver.

Jerry Cox told a federal judge Thursday that he saves almost $9,000 a year on medication through a company the government says is breaking the law by importing drugs from Canada, the Associated Press reports.

According to the wire service, Cox told U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan that he would suffer serious economic harm if she shuts down 85 storefronts that operate under the names Rx Depot and Rx of Canada. Eagan gave both sides in the case until Oct. 31 to submit final arguments.

The government's argument is that the imported drugs may not be safe because they may not meet standards established in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration.

But even the government has its detractors, according to the A.P.. The mayor of Springfield, Mass., Michael Albano, has said his city expects to save $9 million through a voluntary program in which employees get their drugs from Canada. The city's program gets its drugs through another company, CanaRX.

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FDA: Food Manufacturers Have to Register

By the end of the year, the U.S. government hopes to know the names and addresses of every company that makes or processes food in America.

In announcing two new regulations he says are designed to protect the health and safety of American consumers, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says, "We are providing critical new tools for the Food and Drug Administration to identify potentially dangerous foods and better keep our food supply safe and secure."

According to the FDA, the first regulation requires food importers to provide the FDA with advance notice of human and animal food shipments imported or offered for import on or after Dec. 12, 2003. This advance information will allow the FDA, working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to more effectively target inspections and ensure the safety of imported foods. The FDA expects to receive about 25,000 notifications about incoming shipments each day.

The second regulation requires domestic and foreign food facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food for human or animal consumption in the United States to register with the agency by Dec. 12, 2003. As a result, FDA will have for the first time a complete roster of foreign and domestic food facilities.

The requirements will enable the FDA to quickly identify and locate affected food processors and other establishments in the event of deliberate or accidental contamination of food. The FDA expects about 420,000 facilities to register under this requirement.

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U.S. Smoking Decline Falling Short

About 22.8 percent of American adults smoked in 2001, down from 25 percent in 1993, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey published Thursday. But the decline isn't occurring at a rate that will meet the nation's objective of a 12 percent smoking prevalence by 2010, the agency concedes in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In 2001, from which the most recent statistics are available, 46.2 million American adults smoked -- 37.8 million of whom lit up daily. Of those daily smokers, 15.3 million told researchers they had stopped smoking for at least a day in the preceding 12 months because they were trying to quit.

The survey also found:

  • More men (25.2 percent) smoked than women (20.7 percent). Among ethnic groups, Asians (12.4 percent) and Hispanics (16.7 percent) smoked least, while American Indians (32.7 percent) had the highest prevalence.

  • Smoking declined more rapidly among black men and women during the eight-year period than among whites.

  • State-sponsored programs designed to help people quit proved effective. But federal budget cuts led to an 11 percent reduction in state support for such programs over the last two years of the survey.

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Health Officials Worry About SARS Worries

Even if SARS does not appear this winter in the United States, fear over the virus is so great that hospitals are still likely to feel its effects, national health officials tell the Associated Press.

The experts are worried that doctors who don't have much experience with SARS could easily misdiagnose maladies like the flu or bronchitis. "When people start showing up with respiratory diseases, physicians will be thinking of SARS," Dr. James Hughes, an infectious disease expert with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells the wire service.

The first-ever global outbreak of the disease subsided in June after infecting 8,100 and killing 774 worldwide. But global health experts expect the virus to re-emerge with the onset of cold weather in the northern hemisphere.

Compounding the problem is the lack of a rapid diagnostic test, the AP reports. And while vaccine research is in full swing, it could be years before any new drugs reach the market.

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FDA Cites Diet Supplement Firms for Misleading Claims

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it's obtained injunctions against the president of a number of diet supplement firms for making misleading claims about the products he sells.

Jared R. Wheat and five corporations he heads are accused of making unsubstantiated claims for the treatment of obesity and erectile dysfunction. The agency says before taking the action, it had repeatedly warned Wheat and his corporations that their actions violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The FDA says some of the supplements sold contained taldalafil, the active ingredient in the Eli Lilly erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, which is only approved for sale in Europe.

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