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Health Highlights: Sept. 11, 2009

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

Ghostwriting Rampant in Medical Journals: Study

Leading medical journals contained a significant number of articles in 2008 that were written by "ghost" reporters paid by pharmaceutical companies, a new study finds.

The findings, published Thursday by editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported by The New York Times, cite a ghostwriting rate of 10.9 percent in the New England Journal of Medicine, the highest reported; 7.9 percent in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 7.6 percent in The Lancet, 7.6 percent in PLoS Medicine, 4.9 percent in The Annals of Internal Medicine and 2 percent in Nature Medicine.

Responding anonymously to an online questionnaire created for the study, 7.8 percent of authors of 630 articles admitted other people had made contributions to their papers that qualified them to be named as authors but who were not listed.

Bias on the part of industry-funded writers has the potential to influence doctors' treatment decisions and patient care, the researchers noted.

"These journals are the top of the medical field," Joseph S. Wislar, lead author of the study, told The Times. All contributors should at least be listed in acknowledgments if they are not named as authors, he said.

Ginny Barbour, chief editor of PLoS Medicine, the journal of the Public Library of Science, told The Times she was disturbed by the report. "We are a journal that has very tough policies, very explicit policies on ghostwriting and contributorship, and I feel that we've basically been lied to by authors," she said.


Prescription Drug Abuse Declines, Study Finds

Abuse of prescription drugs such as the painkiller Oxycontin declined last year from 2007, reversing an upward trend, a U.S. drug survey finds.

About 6.2 million Americans -- 2.5 percent of the population -- said they abused prescription drugs in the past month in 2008, a decrease from 2.8 percent of the population in 2007, the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health released Thursday found, USA Today reported.

People are responding to health reports that emphasize the dangers of misuse, said Eric Broderick, acting administrator of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which conducted the survey of 67,500 people age 12 and older.

Methamphetamine use also declined, with people who reported using it the previous month dropping from 529,000 people in 2007 to 314,000 in 2008.

But illegal drug use by 50 to 59 year olds increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 4.6 percent in 2008, probably a result of baby-boom drug-users getting older, the report noted.

Also, the survey found that 8 percent of the population used an illegal drug in the past month, the same as in 2007.

Marijuana is the most common illicit drug: 6.1 percent of the population reported use the prior month, up from 5.8 percent in 2007. Among adolescents 12 to 17, 6.7 percent reported past-month use of marijuana in both 2008 and in 2007.


U.S. Uninsured Reaches 46.3 Million: Census

Because of the recession, the number of Americans without health insurance reached 46.3 million last year as workers lost jobs and employers cut coverage, according to a U.S. Census report released Thursday.

In 2008, the first full year of the recession, the report found 15.4 percent of the U.S. population had no health insurance, but that number has probably grown in 2009, President Barack Obama said from the White House, the Associated Press reported.

"The situation's grown worse over the last 12 months," he said. "It's estimated that the ranks of the uninsured have swelled by at least six million."

Although higher than in 2007, the uninsured figures fall short of the peak of 47 million people in 2006 because of the expansion of government insurance programs, such as Medicaid, for the poor.

The poverty rate inched up too -- to 13.2 percent from 12.5 percent in 2007, the AP said. That meant 39.8 million Americans, or nearly one in seven, were living in poverty in 2008. For a family of four, the official poverty level is $22,025.

Geographically, most of the uninsured were in the West (17.4 percent) and the South (18.2 percent). In the Northeast and the Midwest, 11.6 percent were uninsured.


Thousands of N.J. Patients Need Hepatitis Tests

With 29 patients of a New Jersey oncologist diagnosed with hepatitis B, state health officials have advised his other patients, who number in the thousands, to get tested for blood-borne diseases.

As of last month, the state had asked nearly 4,800 patients of Dr. Parvez Dara to get tested for hepatitis B and other diseases, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Antibodies were detected in another 68 patients, but these could not definitively be attributed to the outbreak, the Associated Press reported.

So far, the state knows of about 1,400 who've had testing. The health department "quietly" released the records on its Web site Sept. 1, the AP said.

The state Board of Medical Examiners suspended Dara's license in April, the AP said. Dara, who had practiced in Toms River for 23 years, estimated that 12 of the 45 to 60 patients he saw a day were receiving chemotherapy.

The health department said the investigation is ongoing. A spokesman for Dara criticized the department for a "rush to judgment," the AP reported.

After visiting the doctor's office last March, health officials described unsanitary conditions, including blood on the floor of a treatment room and in a blood-vial storage container, open medication vials, unsterile gauze and use of contaminated gloves.

"The investigation to date suggests that the hepatitis B infections identified may be associated with the method by which medications were administered and procedures performed at the practice," health officials wrote in a letter to patients last month.

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Posted: September 2009