Health Highlights: April 20, 2006

CDC Offers Pre-Pregnancy Health Steps for Women 30 Million on Medicare Have Drug Coverage Driver Distractions Increase Crash Risk Eye Fungus Leads to Lawsuit Against Bausch & Lomb Experts Who Write Mental-Illness Manual Have Drug-Company Links

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

CDC Offers Pre-Pregnancy Health Steps for Women

Stopping smoking and drinking, taking folic acid supplements, and getting proper nutrition and exercise are among the steps women can take to ensure good health before they become pregnant, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations released Thursday.

The recommendations, created through collaboration with more than 35 federal, public and private partners, identify more than a dozen risk factors and conditions that require interventions before pregnancy to be effective. Following this advice can help improve the health of both mothers and babies.

"The child-bearing years are an exciting time in a woman's life and there are a number of steps they can take to be healthy, benefiting both them and their future child," Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC director, said in a prepared statement.

"For instance, even before pregnancy, women of child-bearing age should see their doctor about controlling existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and eating disorders. They should take 400 micrograms of folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects and avoid smoking or drinking alcohol," Gerberding said.

Other measures include checking for medications that may affect the mother or fetus and reviewing a woman's pregnancy history.

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

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30 Million on Medicare Have Drug Coverage

More than 30 million U.S. Medicare beneficiaries are receiving drug coverage, including more than eight million beneficiaries who've gotten new, individual coverage since the prescription drug plan took effect at the start of the year, Medicare said Thursday.

More than 93 million prescriptions were filled in March for Medicare beneficiaries with drug coverage -- an average of three million per day -- and more than 270 million prescriptions have been filled in the first three months of this year, the agency announced.

"With a month to go, we've passed our projections of 28 to 30 million enrollees in the first year, and we are intensifying our local outreach efforts to get more seniors signed up before the May 15 deadline," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a prepared statement.

The number of Medicare beneficiaries with stand-alone prescription drug plans increased 1.7 million over the past four weeks and now stands at more than eight million.

The Medicare figures were greeted with scorn by Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

"Every few weeks the administration lowers its standard for success," Hayes said in a prepared statement. "This should not be a political war of spin. It is about basic human need -- health and survival. For this $1.3 trillion program, the administration now reveals that less than 20 percent of people with Medicare have new drug coverage. (That is 8.1 million out of 43 million). Others have somewhat better coverage, others are worse off."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration insists it will not bow to pressure to extend the May 15 deadline for seniors and disabled people to sign up for the new prescription drug plan.

But even some Republican lawmakers are joining the call for an extension. For example, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) broke party lines and signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to put to a Senate vote one of the bills seeking to extend the deadline, the Boston Globe reported.

The letter, co-written with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said extending the deadline would enable more than one million more seniors to sign up for the program.

Under the present rules, people who don't sign up by May 15 will have to pay 1 percent more in premiums for each month they delay enrollment.

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Driver Distractions Increase Crash Risk

People who talk on cell phones or apply makeup while they drive are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than motorists who focus all their attention on driving, says a report by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Researchers spent more than a year studying 241 drivers in 100 sensor-equipped vehicles. The drivers put on a total of two million miles and were involved in 82 crashes and 761 near-crashes, CNN reported.

Reaching for a moving object while driving increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by nine times, while reading, dialing a handheld device or putting on makeup tripled the risk, the study found.

Nearly 80 percent of the crashes and 65 percent of the near-crashes in the study occurred within three seconds of some form of driver distraction, CNN reported.

Drivers ages 18 to 20 were four times more likely to have a distraction-related crash or near-crash than drivers over age 35. Drowsy drivers had a four-times increased risk.

Cell phones were the most common distraction for drivers in this study and the seconds that drivers spent dialing were the most dangerous.

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Eye Fungus Leads to Lawsuit Against Bausch & Lomb

A lawsuit filed in Miami against Bausch & Lomb blames the company's ReNu with MoistureLoc contact lens solution for an eye fungus that permanently scarred a woman's cornea.

The lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages for the women and six other plaintiffs and also seeks class-action status, the Associated Press reported. The Miami lawsuit follows a similar suit filed in New York.

The Miami lawsuit alleges that Rochester, N.Y.-based Bausch & Lomb failed to remove the fungus from the contact lens solution or fostered the growth of the fungus in the solution's manufacturing process.

Attorney Joel Magolnick told the AP he has received dozens of calls from people in Georgia, Nevada, Utah and Virginia who say they developed eye problems after using ReNu with MoistureLoc.

Last week, Bausch & Lomb stopped shipping the product after it was linked to 109 cases of the eye fungus. The company would not comment on the lawsuit.

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Experts Who Write Mental-Illness Manual Have Drug-Company Links

More than half of the 170 experts who contributed to the current issue of the American Psychiatric Association's manual that defines psychiatric disorders have had financial ties to drug companies that sell medications for mental illnesses, says a study published Thursday in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

"I don't think the public is aware of how egregious the financial ties are in the field of psychiatry," study author Lisa Cosgrove, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, told the Washington Post.

Her findings are being released at a time of increasing discussion about the growing use of drugs as the primary or sole treatment for many mental-health disorders. This trend toward increased use of medication is being partly driven by definitions of psychiatric illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the Post reported.

Experts who write the next edition of the DSM -- due to be published around 2011 -- will be required to disclose their financial ties to the drug industry, the American Psychiatric Association said.

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