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Health Highlights: Feb. 20, 2013

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

New Leprosy Test Quick and Inexpensive

A quick and inexpensive new test for leprosy can detect infections as much as a year before symptoms appear, researchers say.

This improves the chances that patients can be diagnosed and treated before they become permanently disabled or disfigured, The New York Times reported.

The test, which will cost $1 or less, provides results in less than 10 minutes and is far simpler than the current method of diagnosing leprosy, which involves cutting open nodules and looking for bacteria under a microscope.

"It works like a pregnancy test and requires just one drop of blood," Malcolm Duthie, who led the test's development at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, told The Times. "I can teach anyone to use it."

Each year, about 250,000 people worldwide get leprosy. It's most common in Brazil, India, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 150 to 250 cases of leprosy are diagnosed in the United States each year, mostly in immigrants.


Prescription Painkillers Behind Many Overdose Deaths: Report

Prescription opioid painkillers are responsible for almost three of every four medication overdose deaths, a new government report shows.

The troubling statistic, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on data gathered by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the results reflect overdose deaths that occurred in 2010, the findings come at a time when federal health officials are weighing ways to stem the abuse of these powerful prescription medications.

"The big picture is that this is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told the Associated Press Tuesday.

The actual number of overdose deaths also continued to rise. In 2010, there were 38,329 drug overdose deaths nationwide. Nearly 60 percent of all overdose deaths were linked to accidental overdoses of various prescription medications, the report found.

Opioid painkillers -- which include OxyContin and Vicodin -- were the biggest problem, contributing to 75 percent of medication overdose deaths.

Another type of medication that fueled the trend was anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium, contributing to almost 30 percent of overdose deaths.

A government panel of drug safety experts recommended that Vicodin and dozens of other medicines be subjected to the same restrictions as other narcotics such as oxycodone and morphine. At the same time, hospitals have been establishing tougher restrictions on painkiller prescriptions and refills, the AP reported.


U.K. Hospital Patient With SARS-Like Coronavirus Dies

A patient infected with a SARS-like coronavirus has died, according to officials at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England.

The hospital said the patient was also being treated for "a long-term, complex and unrelated health problem" and already had a weakened immune system, the Associated Press reported.

Twelve people worldwide have been diagnosed with the SARS-like coronavirus and six of them have died. Most people infected with the virus -- first identified last year in the Middle East -- had traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Pakistan.

However, it's believed that the latest victim caught the virus from a relative in Britain, where there have been four confirmed cases, the AP reported.

A SARS outbreak in 2003 killed about 800 people worldwide.


Drug Companies Helping Anti-Doping Agency

A number of drug companies are helping the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) develop tests to detect illegal use of their products by athletes.

Two large firms -- Roche and GlaxoSmithKline -- have started evaluating every new drug candidate for its potential to be abused by athletes and have promised to share information about these medicines with WADA, The New York Times reported.

Several other smaller drug makers have provided WADA with information about specific drugs.

Until recently, drug makers paid little attention to how their products could be abused by athletes, according to David Howman, director general of WADA. Previously, drug companies "felt that any publicity in relation to anti-doping control would be negative," he told The Times. "But what they discovered is the opposite happened."

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Posted: February 2013