Health Highlights: Aug. 9, 2006

Sugary Drinks Are Key to Americans' Weight Problems: Study Protect Yourself From Rabies: Health Officials U.S. Hospice Care a $10 Billion Industry FDA and Drug Maker Reach Deal on Morning-After Pill Timely Psychiatric Therapy Rare for Patients on Antidepressants: Study China Confirms Human Bird Flu Death in 2003

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

Sugary Drinks Are Key to Americans' Weight Problems: Study

Increased consumption of soda and other sugary drinks over the past four decades is a key reason why Americans are getting fatter, says a scientific review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers, who reviewed 30 nutrition studies over 40 years, said their findings supported public health efforts to limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, the Associated Press reported.

The findings collectively suggest that soda and sugary drinks "should be discouraged," the authors wrote. They noted that an extra can of soda a day can increase a person's weight by 15 pounds in a single year.

According to the report, about a third of all carbohydrates in the American diet come from added sweeteners, and beverages account for about half this amount, the AP reported.

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Protect Yourself From Rabies: Health Officials

Recent incidents in the United States have prompted health officials to urge people to protect themselves from rabies by preventing animal bites and seeking medical help if they believe they've been exposed to the fatal disease, USA Today reported.

In May, 16-year-old Zach Jones of Houston died of rabies after being infected by a bat bite. About one percent of wild bats are rabid, and people don't always know when they've been bitten by a bat.

There have been a number of rabies scares this year. In the Tucson area, residents of about 10 homes were advised to get rabies vaccinations after they reported bats in their bedrooms. In another case, warning letters were sent to about 440 people who attended a camp in New Richmond, Ohio, because bats were seen where the people slept.

In Virginia, letters were sent to the families of 948 children who attended a Girl Scout camp, where there were reports of bats in the cabins, said David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department.

"With rabies, we always want to err on the side of caution," Goodfriend told USA Today. "It's extremely rare ... but the outcome is so severe."

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U.S. Hospice Care a $10 Billion Industry

Over the past decade, hospice care in the United States has grown to a $10 billion industry, according to data compiled by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO).

The growth is due to the fact that more Americans want to manage the end of their lives, experts said.

"People nowadays are much more interested in options available to them and more people are recognizing the value of hospice care," Jon Radulovic, NHPCO spokesman, told Agence France Presse.

In 2004, 1.06 million people sought care at 3,600 U.S. hospice facilities, an increase of 110,000 people from 2003.

Radulovic estimated that there are currently about 4,100 U.S. hospice facilities. In 1974, there was just one hospice in the country and by 1985, there were 1,545, AFP reported.

There's a growing awareness among terminally ill patients that they don't have to die in a hospital bed while hooked up to life support equipment, Radulovic said.

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FDA and Drug Maker Reach Deal on Morning-After Pill

Over-the-counter (OTC) sales of the Plan B emergency contraceptive in the United States could begin within a few weeks, after federal regulators and drug maker Barr Laboratories reached an agreement Monday.

Under the deal, Barr will resubmit its application for OTC sales of Plan B within two weeks and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will act quickly on the application, The New York Times reported.

The FDA asked that the new Barr application restrict OTC sales to women 18 years of age or older. OTC sales of Plan B would be restricted to pharmacies and licensed clinics. Girls younger than 18 would need a prescription to get Plan B.

Barr Chairman Bruce Downey told The Times that acting FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach assured him in a phone call that the agency was committed to resolving the Plan B impasse.

The FDA has delayed a decision on OTC sales of Plan B for three years. Critics say the delay was fueled by politics, because many anti-abortion groups oppose wider availability of Plan B.

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Timely Psychiatric Therapy Rare for Patients on Antidepressants: Study

Most patients who are prescribed antidepressant drugs don't get the psychotherapy they require immediately after they start taking the drugs, a period of time when there can be a temporary increased risk for suicidal behavior, a U.S. study finds.

Researchers reviewed prescription and doctor visit records of nearly 80,000 adults and about 5,000 youngsters from July 2001 through September 2003 and found that only about a third of children and even fewer adults saw a doctor or therapist for mental health care within a month of beginning antidepressant drug treatment, the Associated Press reported.

Factors that may contribute to the problem include: cost of therapy, a shortage of psychiatrists in some parts of the United States, and a lack of follow-up by busy family physicians.

The study -- by Medco Health Solutions Inc., which manages prescription benefits for health plans -- was conducted before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 2004 recommendation that new antidepressant users see a doctor once a week during the first month of antidepressant treatment and three more times in the following two months, the AP reported.

The FDA has also asked drug companies to place warnings on antidepressant drugs that call for close monitoring of suicidal thoughts or violent behavior in the first few weeks after patients start treatment.

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China Confirms Human Bird Flu Death in 2003

The first laboratory-confirmed bird flu death in China occurred in November 2003 rather than the previously reported date of October 2005, the country's top health officials said Tuesday.

This means that China had the first human case in the current H5N1 bird flu outbreak. The new information indicates that China needs to improve its bird flu surveillance and reporting systems, experts said.

The 2003 case involved a 24-year-old Beijing man who died during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The man was diagnosed with serious pneumonia without a clear cause. After he died, tests showed that SARS was not the cause. Because of that, experts kept the man's sample for further research. That sample contained H5N1, China Daily reported.

The source of the bird flu infection in the man is not known, officials said. There were no reported outbreaks of H5N1 in the Beijing area at the time.

China reported its first bird flu outbreak in poultry in late January 2004. To date, the country has reported 20 human infections and 13 deaths, including the November 2003 case, China Daily reported.

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