Health Highlights: Aug. 25, 2008

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

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

Alabama to Charge Obese Workers Extra for Insurance

Any of Alabama's more than 35,000 state employees will be charged $25 per month for insurance that's usually free if they're too fat and don't work on losing the extra weight by January 2010, the Associated Press reported Monday.

While other states reward workers who meet criteria for what's considered healthy, Alabama would be the first state to penalize those who qualify as obese. The monthly charge would apply to any state employee with a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or greater who "doesn't make progress" in slimming down, the wire service said. The state has yet to determine how much progress an employee would have to demonstrate.

A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. A person who is 5-feet, 6-inches tall and weighs 220 pounds would have a BMI of 35.5, the AP said.

The wire service cited statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that Alabama ranks second in the nation behind Mississippi as the state with the biggest weight problem. Nearly one-third of Alabamians are obese.

The director of Alabama's State Employees' Insurance Board said that a person with a BMI of 35 to 39 faces about $1,750 more in medical expenses each year than a person with a BMI of less than 25.

Alabama already charges a premium to state workers who smoke.

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Death, Illness Tolls Rise in Canadian Food Poisoning Outbreak

At least four people have died and 21 have become sick in Canada from an outbreak of listeriosis linked to recalled meat products, the Associated Press said Monday.

Maple Leaf Foods widened its recall Sunday to include 220 products, and the company has shut its manufacturing plant for a thorough cleaning, the wire service reported. Most recalled products have been removed from store shelves nationwide, the company said. There are no reports that the recalled products were sold outside Canada.

Canadian health officials are evaluating whether another 30 cases of illness might be related to the outbreak.

Listeriosis is particularly dangerous to people with weaker immune systems, including the young, elderly, pregnant women, and people with chronic diseases such as AIDS. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

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HIV/AIDS Testing Jurisdictions Reduced; 8 States Lose Funding

It was only two weeks ago that a revised HIV/AIDS tracking system indicated the annual HIV rate in the United States was about 40 percent higher than annual estimates had been giving for years.

And now, The New York Times reports, eight states and Puerto Rico will no longer get money for an advanced HIV tracking system. The reason: there is only so much money for the advanced system, and the losers didn't meet the competitive requirements.

The country had been divided into 34 HIV-tracking jurisdictions, the Times reports, but now there will be 25. Those jurisdictions no longer getting financing are Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Puerto Rico, the newspaper said.

Terry Butler, a spokeswoman for the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times the tracking system can tell the difference between old and new HIV infections. And Julie Scofield, executive director of the National Alliance of State and Territorial Directors told the Times that a shortage in funding was taking its toll.

"Their [the CDC's] ability to say that they're going to have ongoing reliable reports of incidence is somewhat questionable unless you have funding for that," Scofield told the newspaper. Her organization is asking for a $35 million increase in financing, the newspaper reports.

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Medicare Prescription Drug Program Not Properly Monitored, Report Says

The U.S. government agency charged with overseeing the Medicare prescription drug program has done very little to check whether the insurance companies administering the plans to 24 million Americans are doing their jobs, the Associated Press reports.

In a report to be released Monday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hasn't audited insurers to see if the prescription drug plans were working within federal guidelines, the wire service reports. This could cause "significant misuse of funds in this $39 billion program," the wire service quotes the GAO as saying.

The GAO checked on five unnamed health insurance companies itself, the AP says, and many requirements for participation in the prescription drug program were unmet.

But a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services official countered that a Congressional cap on spending had limited his agency's ability to monitor the insurance companies. This limitation "has seriously degraded CMS' ability to meet its responsibilities in combating fraud and abuse," Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the wire service.

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Cancer Risk Decreases After Age 80, Study Says

The risk of most cancers decreases after age 80, according to a Harvard University study.

While previous research has linked old age with increased cancer risk, study author Richard Wilson and colleagues found that rates of nearly all cancers peak at age 80 and the rates drop toward zero as people approach the end of their lives, United Press International reported.

There are a number of reasons why people are less likely to develop cancer after age 80, Wilson said. They include: diet changes that result in a reduction of dietary carcinogens; decreased use of substances such as tobacco and alcohol; fewer occupational exposures to carcinogens; and less body weight, which may have an effect on several types of cancers.

The study is published in the American Association for Cancer Research .

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Americans Not Eating Enough Tree Nuts

Too few Americans are eating the recommended 1 1/2 ounces of tree nuts per day, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, say U.S. researchers. Tree nuts include almonds, Brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, macadamias and walnuts.

The researchers noted that the 2001-04 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 34 percent of respondents said they ate nuts, but most ate about half the recommended amount, United Press International reported.

"Most people consume as much as 25 percent of their total caloric intake from snacks," Janet King, co-chairwoman of the 2007 Nuts and Health Symposium and past chairwoman of the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said in a news release. "If we could replace snacks high in refined carbohydrates with just 1/4 to 1/3 cup of nuts per day, we could have a positive impact on nutrient density and the risk of chronic disease."

Information from the Nuts and Health Symposium is published in the September issue of the Journal of Nutrition.

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