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Today's Health Highlights: Jan. 19, 2002

Ontario Government Blamed for E. coli Contamination Suspicious Vials Halt Landfill Cleanup Efforts Recipient of Largest Award Against Tobacco Company Dies of Lung Cancer Ovulation Test Offers Spitting Image Of Fertility Status More Docs Face Murder Charges In Overdose Deaths Genetic Technologies Detect Water Contamination Faster

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

Ontario Government Blamed for E. coli Contamination

An outbreak of E. coli that killed seven people and made more than 2,000 others ill in Canada two years ago is being blamed on governmental cost-cutting and a lack of oversight in the privatization of lab testing drinking water, reports the Associated Press.

The outbreak, which was the nation's worst E. coli contamination in history, occurred on May 12, 2000, when a flood washed cattle manure into a well in the southern Ontario town of Walkerton, a farming community of about 5,000 people.

A report on the contamination issued by Ontario Justice Dennis O'Connor yesterday concludes a nine-month investigation of the outbreak involving 114 witnesses.

The report specifically blames two brothers, Stan and Frank Koebel, for not having enough training and education to manage the water supply and then lying to officials to protect their jobs.

But further blame is placed on a "distaste for regulation" by Ontario that led to the privatization of water testing in 1996 without the proper enactment of new rules to oversee water safety.

The report goes on to say that the government went ahead with budget cuts despite warnings that those cuts could lead to water safety issues.


Suspicious Vials Halt Landfill Cleanup Efforts

The discovery of two vials of live bacteria has halted cleanup operations at landfills at Maryland's Fort Detrick, according to the Associated Press.

The sealed, glass vials found last week at the Army base last week contained a granular, whitish-brown material.

Fort Detrick once produced large amounts of anthrax under the offensive biological weapons program from 1951 to 1969, but officials said the bacteria are apparently not anthrax or any other recognizable biological weapons.

Precautions are nevertheless being taken and cleanup efforts will be stalled until the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases can identify the substance.

In addition to the medical institute, other tenants at the base from whom the vials could have come from include the National Cancer Institute.

An identification is expected by next week.

Recipient of Largest Award Against Tobacco Company Dies of Lung Cancer

A lung cancer patient who was awarded the largest judgment by an individual against a tobacco company has died from the disease, reports the Associated Press.

Lawyers for the patient, 57-year-old Richard Boeken, say he died at his home on Wednesday.

A jury had initially awarded Boeken, a lifelong smoker, a stunning $3 billion in damages against tobacco giant Philip Morris in June. A Superior Court judge upheld the judgment but the award amount was subsequently reduced to $100 million.

Boeken reportedly began smoking at the age of 13 and smoked at least two packs of Marlboro cigarettes a day for more than 40 years.

His lawsuit charged Philip Morris with negligence, misrepresentation, fraud, and selling a defective product.


Ovulation Test Offers Spitting Image Of Fertility Status

A new ovulation test will soon allow women to find out if they're fertile by simply licking a swab, according to the Association Press.

The TCI Ovulation Tester, a saliva-based ovulation test recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, has reportedly been shown to be more than 90 percent reliable in detecting if a woman is in the ovulation stage of her reproductive cycle.

Using the test involves dabbing a small brush onto saliva in one's mouth and then dabbing the sample onto a tiny slide that is then viewed through a handheld microscope.

If a dotted, fern-like pattern appears, that means salt levels in the saliva have increased and ovulation is imminent.

FDA officials told the AP that one advantage of the test is that women can actually get a bit of a warning that ovulation is approaching when they see the early formation of the patterns.

Urine tests, on the other hand, offer only a positive or negative reading. That means that women can miss their chance at conceiving during ovulation.

The new product, made by TCI Optics, is expected to hit store shelves within a few weeks for $59.95.


More Docs Face Murder Charges In Overdose Deaths

When patients overdose on prescription drugs, doctors often wind up facing charges of fraud or illegally prescribing controlled substances, but slew of new lawsuits indicates a growing trend in charging doctors in such cases with murder.

The New York Times reports that three recent cases of doctors charged with murder or manslaughter in connection with patients overdosing on the painkiller OxyContin indicate that prosecutors are cracking down on so-called "pill mills," in which patients pay a doctor's fee simply in order to get a prescription.

The first of the murder trials began in Florida this week, where Dr. James Graves went on trial on manslaughter charges related to the overdose deaths of four patients for whom he had prescribed OxyContin and other drugs.

Similar trials get underway in California and again in Florida in upcoming months.

All three doctors have pleaded not guilty, arguing that they were only treating low-income patients who had chronic pain with the high doses of narcotics like OxyContin that are necessary to be affective.

OxyContin is said to work as a safe narcotic by issuing time-released doses of the synthetic opiate oxycodone, but experts say abusers have learned that much higher doses of the opiate can be extracted by simply crushing the pills.

The drug has reportedly been a factor in the overdose deaths of 300 people around the nation.


Genetic Technologies Detect Water Contamination Faster

New genetic testing methods could mean faster and more accurate detection of harmful bacteria and viruses in water, reports HealthDay.

According to Joan B. Rose, steering committee co-chairwoman of a recent American Academy of Microbiology report on the new methods, the advances look at specific genetic sequence and identify microbes according to specific genetic information.

"These methods allow us to look for microbes that we could not look for before," she says.

Gene probes, genotyping, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are among the molecular techniques being researched that could replace the current -- and outdated -- method for testing water.

The current testing method detects and counts so-called indicator bacteria. With this method, water samples are exposed to nutrients and incubated to encourage the growth of bacteria that usually thrive in the human colon. The growth of coliform bacteria indicates fecal contamination in the water.

However, such tests can't detect disease-causing viruses like hepatitis A or E, bacteria like Helicobacter, or such parasites as cryptosporidium. They also can't identify waterborne intestinal diseases that each year kill as many as 2 million children worldwide, the report says.

The new technologies could help identify microbes suspected of causing disease, and confront antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the spread of harmful microbes that can come from increased globalization.


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