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Health Highlights: Jan. 19, 2009

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

4th Human Bird Flu Case Reported in China

A 16-year-old male student in central China's Hunan province is now the fourth victim of human bird flu in the country this year.

A provincial government official told the Xinhua news agency Monday that the student fell ill two weeks ago in Guizhou, the provincial capital, and is in critical condition.

He tested positive for the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, and reportedly had had contact with poultry.

On Saturday, officials said a 27-year-old woman in east China's Shandong province died of the virus, while a two-year-old girl was infected in northern Shanxi province.

The girl is in the hospital in critical condition, the Associated Press reported. Her family members and others who came in close contact with her were under medical observation.

The first victim of the year, a 19-year-old woman, died in Beijing earlier this month, after being in contact with ducks in a market, the wire service said.

The AP said that World Health Organization (WHO) statistics show this strain of bird flu has killed 248 people worldwide since 2003, when it was first reported to have infected humans. Twenty-one of those deaths have been in China, with a total of 32 cases reported.

None of these cases has been found to be spread by human-to-human contact, according to WHO medical experts, but rather by close contact with different species of birds, especially poultry and fowl.


'Conscience Rule' Gets Legal Challenge

The Conscience Rule, one of the last items on President George W. Bush's health agenda, has been challenged in U.S. District Court.

The Washington Post reports that a lawsuit was filed Jan. 15 in Connecticut by that state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, seeking to block a new federal regulation that protects health workers if they refuse to perform medical services to which they object. The rule went into effect in December.

Blumenthal's suit included the states of California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island, the Post reported. Separate lawsuits were also filed by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

Central to the Conscience Rule, the newspaper reports, is that it stops federal funding to any health organization -- public or private -- if it doesn't allow health professionals the right to refuse to perform or take part in any health care services they consider objectionable on ethical, moral or religious grounds.

"On the way out, the Bush administration has left a ticking political time bomb that is set to explode literally on the day of the president's [Barack Obama] inaugural and blow apart women's rights," the newspaper quotes Blumenthal as saying.

Rebecca Ayer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told the Post that HHS would defend its actions in court. "The department followed appropriate procedures to put the regulation in place, and the regulation is fully supported by law," the newspaper quotes her as saying.


FDA Lax in Review of High-Risk Medical Devices: Report

From 2003 to 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved some 228 medical devices -- some of them for sensitive uses -- without a full scale review, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said Thursday.

The report found that two dozen distinct types of devices -- such as metal hip joints, external defibrillators to assist heart attack victims, and electrodes for pacemakers -- were approved without close scrutiny, the Associated Press said.

Some devices approved have been recalled because of malfunctions and other problems, according to the consumer group Public Citizen. "It all adds up to less-than-rigorous device review, and it's placing tens of thousands of Americans at risk," Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's health research group, told the news service.

While the report did not look into whether any patients were harmed as a result of the approvals, it does highlight calls for closer scrutiny of the FDA's medical device approval process, which has been subject to charges that scientists were pressured to OK some medical machinery against their professional judgment, the AP said.

In 1976, Congress established a three-tiered classification system for these devices, which include everything from tongue depressors to silicone breast implants to pacemakers, the AP said. Low-risk devices such as bandages could be cleared by notifying the FDA before going to market, while high-risk devices such as pacemakers would face tighter scrutiny. Manufacturers were required to provide evidence of safety and effectiveness, but subsequent gains in technology have increased not only the number of devices coming to market but also the number of upgraded products coming up for review, the news service said.

"In general, we agree with the conclusions and recommendations," FDA spokeswoman Karen Riley said. "We are considering legal and procedural options to accomplish this objective."

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Posted: January 2009