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Health Highlights: July 25, 2008

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

Drug Companies Make Billions More Under Medicare Part D

U.S. drug companies are enjoying a taxpayer-funded windfall worth billions of dollars under Medicare's privatized Part D drug benefit program for seniors and the disabled, says a report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The document said that under Medicare Part D, prescription drugs cost up to 30 percent more than they do under other government programs. Moreover, drug makers have taken in $3.7 billion more than they would have under Medicaid's program for the poor, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"This is an enormous giveaway. And it has absolutely no justification," said committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who plans to introduce legislation that federal taxpayers wouldn't be charged higher prices under Medicare Part D than under Medicaid.

"The drug companies are making the same drugs. They are being used by the same beneficiaries. Yet because the drugs are being bought through Medicare Part D instead of Medicaid, the prices paid by taxpayers have ballooned by billions of dollars," the newspaper quoted Waxman as saying.


Family, Friends May Influence Person's Weight

People with overweight family and friends may be more likely to pack on the pounds, according to a study by an international team of researchers.

They analyzed data on 27,000 people from across Europe and concluded that choices about appearance made by people around you may influence your own choices. In other words, if people around you are overweight, you may decide it's okay for you to be overweight too, BBC News reported.

"Rising obesity needs to be thought of a sociological phenomenon not a physiological one," said researcher Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in the U.K. "People are influenced by relative comparisons, and norms have changed and are still changing."

This finding about "imitative obesity" was presented at an economics conference in the United States.

But one expert said the reasons for rising obesity rates are much more complex, BBC News reported.

"If you are surrounded by people, whether that's friends or within the family home, who are overweight, you are sharing the same environment where there is likely to be an abundance of the wrong kinds of foods," noted Dr. David Haslam, clinical director of the (U.K.) National Obesity Forum.


Wrong Kind of Bra Can Lead to Breast Damage

Wearing the wrong kind of bra could damage a woman's breasts, warn breast biomechanics experts at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., who tested about 50 bra designs on hundreds of women over the past three years.

Poor bra support, the researchers said, can lead to stretching of fragile ligaments in the breast, BBC News reported.

During exercise, breasts can move up to 8 inches up and down, in and out, and side to side. However, most bras provide only limited vertical support, the researchers noted.

They also said many women make the wrong choices in bras for everyday wear and suffer pain and discomfort, BBC News reported.

"Many women have strong preferences for certain styles of bra and won't buy anything else. They won't even look at anything that doesn't look like the sort of bra they are used to wearing," said study researcher Wendy Hedger.


1,013 Americans Overdosed on Illegal Painkiller

Between early April 2005 and late March 2007, 1,013 Americans died after overdosing on an illegal version of the powerful prescription painkiller fentanyl, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Thursday.

"This was really an epidemic," report co-author Dr. Steven Marcus, executive director of New Jersey's poison control center, told the Associated Press.

The number of deaths slowed after a fentanyl operation in Toluca, Mexico was shut down by authorities in May 2006.

"It almost disappeared entirely. The shutting down of the Toluca facility was probably a major factor," lead author Dr. T. Stephen Jones, a consultant retired from the CDC, told the AP.

The study appears in the this week's issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Fentanyl is often prescribed for cancer patients. Illegal versions of the drug are sold as a powder, often mixed with cocaine or heroin, and sometimes used as a heroin replacement, the AP reported.


Bisphenol A No Threat to Human Health: EU Agency

The chemical bisphenol A -- used to make some hard plastics -- doesn't pose a threat to human health, according to a statement from European regulators cited by CBC News.

Some research in animals has suggested the chemical may pose a health risk. However, a scientific panel concluded that adults and children rapidly metabolize BPA and eliminate it from their bodies, the European Food Safety Authority said.

"This represents an important metabolic difference compared with rats," the authority said in a statement, CBC News reported. "EFSA will continue to monitor closely scientific findings regarding BPA and any related health effects."

BPA is used to make a number of products, including hard plastic water bottles, liners in cans, DVDs and CDs. In response to concerns about the chemical, Canada banned the import and sale of polycarbonate baby bottles containing BPA.

The EFSA said that decision was based on limited evidence.


Cancer Institute Director Warns Faculty and Staff About Cell Phone Use

Staff at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute have been advised to limit their cell phone use due to the possible risk of cancer. The unprecedented warning was issued Wednesday by institute director Dr. Ronald Herberman.

His caution is based on early unpublished data. But Herberman said people should take action now to protect themselves because it can take too long for science to provide clear answers, the Associated Press reported. No other major academic cancer research institution has issued this kind of warning about cell phone use.

"Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later," Herberman said.

In a memo sent to about 3,000 faculty and staff, Herberman said adults should keep cell phones away from the head and use the speakerphone or a wireless headset. He also advised against the use of cell phones in public places because other people can be exposed to the phone's electromagnetic fields, the AP reported.

Because children's brains are still developing, they should use cell phones only for emergencies, Herberman said.

He cited unpublished data from a current 13-nation project called Interphone. Published results from the project, which involves countries mostly in Europe, focus on some 5,000 brain tumors. The U.S. National Research Council, which isn't part of Interphone, has criticized the project because it appeared to rely on people who already had brain tumors, asking them about their cell phone use.

A huge study on the subject, published in in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006, followed 420,000 Danish cell phone users. It found no increased risk of cancer among participants, the AP reported.

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Posted: July 2008