Health Highlights: May 8, 2009

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

Cervarix Induces Stronger Immune Response Than Gardasil: Study

A head-to-head comparison suggests that GlaxoSmithKline PLC's Cervarix vaccine triggers a stronger immune response against the cervical cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) than Merck & Co.'s Gardasil.

The Glaxo-funded study of 1,100 women, ages 18 to 45, didn't examine which vaccine was more effective at preventing cervical cancer or precancerous lesions, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The findings were presented at a Swedish medical conference that began Friday. Cervarix is on the market in Europe and is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Gardasil is designed to protect women against four HPV types, including those that cause most cases of genital warts, the Wall Street Journal reported. Cervarix targets two HPV types and isn't meant to provide as much protection against genital warts.

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Health Insurance Unaffordable for More Families Than Thought: Study

Most uninsured families who aren't covered by group health insurance through work can't afford to buy health insurance, says a U.S. government study.

Unlike most studies that use income alone to estimate how many Americans can afford health insurance, this study shows that measuring families' median net worth (the value of their savings plus other assets minus debt) provides a more accurate count.

Using national survey data, researchers with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that the median net worth of families who purchased health insurance was $105,819 -- nearly 35 times greater than the median net worth of $3,057 for uninsured families. Median net worth means that half the families had net worth above or below that amount.

In contrast, the median income of families who purchased health insurance was $41,086 -- only 2.3 times greater than the median income of $17,690 for uninsured families.

The study also found that 4.1 percent of families with access to work-based health insurance were poor (family income below 100 percent of the federal poverty line), and 11.1 percent were low income (family income 100 percent to 199 percent of the federal poverty line). Among families without access to employer-based health insurance, 33.8 percent were poor, and 28.4 percent were low income.

"This study has important implications for defining who can afford to pay for health insurance in the next wave of health care reform," AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy, said in a news release. "We need accurate, evidence-based findings to ensure that we are providing policymakers with reliable information."

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Obama's 2010 Health Budget Targets Reforms

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this week outlined provisions of President Barack Obama's 2010 health budget that target cutting costs, improving quality of care and rooting out waste and fraud in the Medicare system.

Overall, the proposed budget includes a total of $879 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services in 2010, a $63 billion increase over the agency's 2009 budget. The budget establishes a $635 billion health care reserve fund over 10 years, funded by new revenue and savings from Medicare and Medicaid, to finance the reforms and assure health care coverage for all Americans, Sebelius said in a news release from her agency. To improve public safety, the new budget also sets aside $584 million to prepare for and combat pandemic flu and fund increases for the Food and Drug Administration to help ensure the safety of food and medicine.

"We estimate that for every $1 we spend to stop fraud in the system, we save $1.55," Sebelius said in the new release. "The President's budget lays out funding for anti-fraud efforts over five years that we estimate could save $2.7 billion by improving overall oversight and stopping fraud and abuse within the Medicare Advantage and Medicare prescription drug programs."

Other highlights in the health care budget include $4 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS) to expand health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives; $330 million to fund education programs to address the shortage of health care providers in underserved areas; $73 million for improving rural health care initiatives; and $354 million to help combat health care disparities of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income and disadvantaged populations.

The FDA would also receive an additional $511 million, with $259 million earmarked for food safety efforts, increasing the number of inspectors by about 20 percent, as well as helping fund domestic surveillance, laboratory capacity, and response to and control of food-borne illness.

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U.S. Raid Seizes $1.5 Million of Contaminated Food Products

More than $1.5 million worth of food products, including herbs and botanicals, stored in filthy conditions at the American Mercantile Corporation of Memphis, Tenn., have been seized by U.S. marshals on Thursday at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency reported.

FDA inspectors in March had found evidence of rodent and insect infestation in the company's warehouse, but said the firm had failed to correct conditions. The products seized in the raid included items such as sarsaparilla, spearmint leaves, cornstarch, sweet orange peels powder, licorice powder, sassafras, and salt that may have been sold to and used in the dietary supplement and herbal tea industries, according to the FDA release. The seized products violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the agency said, because they were held in unsanitary conditions where they may have become contaminated with filth.

The FDA said it had received no reports of illness associated with the products.

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Dodgers' Ramirez Suspended 50 Games After Positive Drug Test

Los Angeles Dodgers' All-Star outfielder Manny Ramirez has been suspended for 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, Major League Baseball officials has announced. The suspension begins immediately and was expected to cost Ramirez about a third of his $25 million salary. He could return to the field on or about July 3, the New York Times reported.

Ramirez, 36, said he would not challenge the decision and in a statement released through the Major League Baseball Players Association said that he tested positive for a doctor-prescribed medication he was taking for a personal health issue and not a steroid, the Times reported. "I want to apologize to Mr. McCourt, Mrs. McCourt, Mr. Torre, my teammates, the Dodger organization, and to the Dodger fans. LA is a special place to me, and I know everybody is disappointed. So am I. I'm sorry about this whole situation," Ramirez said in the statement. The McCourts own the Dodgers, and Joe Torre, the former skipper of the New York Yankees, now manages the Dodgers.

Ramirez becomes the third major league player suspended this year under baseball's tougher drug-testing program. The new policy calls for a 50-game suspension for a first violation, a 100-game suspension for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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West Nile Test Produced False-Positive Results: Study

A commercially available West Nile Virus test produced a substantial number of false-positive test results and affected the number of West Nile Virus (WNV) cases reported in the United States in 2008, a new study says.

One lot of the WNV Immunoglobulin M (IgM) ELISA kit used at four laboratories resulted in positive tests from 518 patients in 42 states. Retesting of available samples showed a 72 percent false-positive rate. The majority of those false-positive results were from people without symptoms of neuroinvasive disease.

The lot of the test kit, labeled for use on serum to help aid in suspected cases of WNV neuroinvasive disease, was used starting in July 2008 and was recalled after a multistate investigation into an increased number of false-positive WNV test results.

The indicated use of commercially available test kits should be considered when requesting testing and interpreting results. Any positive results should be confirmed by a state health department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the authors of the report, which was published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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Syphilis Rates in Heterosexuals Need Monitoring: Study

Public health officials in the United States need to watch for increasing rates of syphilis among heterosexuals, say the authors of a study that found sharp increases in new syphilis infections among heterosexuals in Jefferson County, Ala.

U.S. syphilis rates have been increasing since the early 2000s, and this rise has been associated primarily with men who have sex with men (MSM). Between 2002 and 2004, MSM accounted for 46.3 percent of all new syphilis cases in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham.

However, between 2005 and 2007, heterosexuals accounted for 87.7 percent of new syphilis cases in the county, while MSM accounted for only 12.3 percent, said the study published Thursday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, cases of syphilis in Jefferson County increased from nine in 2002 to 238 in 2006, and then declined to 167 in 2007. Between 2002 and 2007, the proportion of women with syphilis increased from 26.9 percent to 43.3 percent. The researchers noted that after 10 years of decline, syphilis cases among women in the Southern U.S. increased 69 percent between 2003 and 2007.

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Facebook Use Doesn't Harm Grades: Report

Students who use the social networking site Facebook don't have lower grades, says a new study that contradicts the preliminary findings of an Ohio State University study that made news last month.

"We found no evidence of Facebook use correlating with lower academic achievement," co-author Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said in a news release.

Hargittai and colleagues' examination of three data sets found no significant negative relationship between grade point average and normal Facebook use. The study appears in the online journal First Monday.

It is possible that excessive Facebook use can have a negative effect on academic performance, Hargittai noted.

"If somebody's spending an inordinate amount of time on Facebook at the expense of studying, his or her academic performance may suffer, just as it might from spending an excessive time on any activity," Hargittai said. "We need more research with more nuanced data to better understand how social networking site usage may relate to academic performance."

Posted: May 2009


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