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Health Highlights: Dec. 12, 2007

Health Experts Warn of Loss of Momentum in Fight Against Smoking U.S. Cholesterol Average Drops to New Low Annual U.S. Hospital Bill May Hit $1 Trillion in 2008: Report U.S. and China Sign Drug and Food Safety Accords FDA: People With Asian Ancestry Should Be Tested Before Taking Carbamazepine Excess Weight Reduces Women's Fertility: Study Death Toll Reaches 30 in Uganda Ebola Outbreak

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

Health Experts Warn of Loss of Momentum in Fight Against Smoking

Noting that U.S. smoking rates are stagnant after nearly a decade of decline, a coalition of public health organizations warned Wednesday that the nation's progress in reducing smoking is at risk unless states significantly increase funding for programs to prevent children from smoking and help smokers quit.

The warning, contained in an annual report, assesses whether states are keeping their promise to use proceeds from the 1998 state tobacco settlement to fight tobacco use. This year, the report found that states have increased funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs by 20 percent -- to $717.2 million, the highest level in six years.

But, most states still fail to fund these programs at minimum levels recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the states combined are providing less than half of what the CDC has recommended, the report said.

The report, "A Broken Promise to Our Children: The 1998 State Tobacco Settlement Nine Years Later," was released by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Among the report's findings:

  • Only three states -- Maine, Delaware and Colorado -- currently fund tobacco prevention programs at CDC minimum levels.
  • Only 17 other states fund tobacco prevention programs at even half the CDC's minimum amount.
  • Thirty states and the District of Columbia are spending less than half the CDC minimum, while Connecticut has appropriated no funding for tobacco prevention this year.
  • Total state funding for tobacco prevention amounts to less than 3 percent of the record $24.9 billion the states will collect this year from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. Just 6.4 percent of this tobacco revenue would fund prevention programs in every state at CDC minimum levels.
  • The states' funding of tobacco prevention pales compared to the $13.4 billion a year spent on tobacco marketing and the nearly $100 billion spent each year on health-care bills due to tobacco use.

The report comes as recent surveys have found that the nation's progress in reducing smoking has stalled among both children and adults. The CDC recently reported that 20.8 percent of adults smoked in 2006, about the same as the 20.9 percent in 2004 and 2005. This followed a steady decline between 1997 and 2004. High school smoking rates have similarly stalled after declining from a high of 36.4 percent in 1997, and 23 percent of high school students still smoke, according to the most recent CDC data cited by the report.

The CDC has attributed this stall to several factors, including cuts in tobacco prevention funding, increases in tobacco marketing and stagnant cigarette prices due to industry discounting.

"It is unacceptable to stand still in the fight against the number one preventable cause of death in our country," said William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "As the Institute of Medicine and the President's Cancer Panel found, we know what works to reduce smoking, save lives and save money by reducing tobacco-related health care costs. What's needed is the political leadership to fund and implement these measures as aggressively as the tobacco companies continue to market their deadly and addictive products."

Tobacco use is the nation's leading preventable cause of death, killing more than 400,000 people and costing nearly $100 billion in health-care bills each year, the report said.


U.S. Cholesterol Average Drops to New Low

For the first time since it began in 1960, a national survey has found that the average total cholesterol level among American adults is in the ideal range. The average level in 2005-2006 was 199, according to the survey of about 4,500 people 20 and older. A level of 200 or less is desirable.

The National Center for Health Statistics conducts the blood test survey in two-year intervals. The average total cholesterol level was 204 in 1999-2000 and 222 in 1960, the Associated Press reported.

The new survey also found that the percentage of adults with high cholesterol (240 or higher) was 16 percent, compared to 20 percent in the early 1990s. Among survey respondents, 65 percent of men and 75 percent of women had been screened for high cholesterol in the previous five years.

A primary reason for the positive news may be rising use of cholesterol-lowering drugs in people 60 and older, said report author Susan Schober, a senior epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, the AP reported.

"These age groups are the ones most likely to be treated with medication," she said.


Annual U.S. Hospital Bill May Hit $1 Trillion in 2008: Report

In 2005, U.S. hospitals charged a combined $873 billion for patient treatment, nearly 90 percent more than the $462 billion cumulative hospital bill in 1997, according to the latest News and Numbers from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Over the past several years, the average annual rate of increase in the national hospital bill was 4.5 percent. At that rate, the annual tally may hit $1 trillion by 2008, the report said.

Medicare paid the majority of the 2005 national hospital bill ($411 billion), followed by private insurers ($272 billion) and Medicaid ($124 billion). Uninsured patients accounted for $38 billion in charges. The remaining $28 billion was paid for by other insurers, including Workers' Compensation, TRICARE, Title V, and other government programs.

Five conditions accounted for a considerable chunk of the national hospital bill: coronary artery disease ($46 billion); pregnancy and childbirth ($44 billion); newborn infant care ($35 billion); heart attack ($32 billion); and congestive heart failure ($30 billion).


U.S. and China Sign Drug and Food Safety Accords

After nearly seven months of negotiations, the United States and China have signed a pact to strengthen regulation of drugs and medical devices exported to the United States, The New York Times reported.

Under the accord, all Chinese companies that make certain drugs for export to the United States will have to register with Chinese regulators. Drugs covered under the pact include the cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin (Lipitor), the erectile dysfunction drug sildenafil (Viagra), and the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate.

However, the pact does little to regulate bulk pharmaceutical ingredients made by thousands of unlicensed chemical companies in China. Some of those ingredients are substandard and dangerous, the newspaper said.

While this agreement doesn't address all areas of concern, American officials said it's an important first step in helping the Chinese government regulate unlicensed companies, the Times reported.

The United States and China also signed an agreement that places new registration and inspection requirements on 10 food products exported by Chinese companies. The specified products include some preserved foods, pet foods and farm-raised fish, all of which have come under suspicion of being tainted, The Times said.


People With Asian Ancestry Should Be Tested Before Taking Carbamazepine: FDA

Drugs that contain the active ingredient carbamazepine will carry a warning that patients with Asian ancestry should get a genetic blood test before taking the drugs. The test will determine if they're at increased risk for rare, but serious, skin reactions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.

Drugs that contain carbamazepine -- sold under the brand names Carbatrol, Equetro and Tegretol -- are used to treat epilepsy, bipolar disorder and neuropathic pain.

The risk of skin reactions -- which can include lesions, blisters, fever and itching -- is about 1 to 6 people per 10,000 among new users of such drugs in countries with mainly white populations. However, the risk is estimated to be about 10 times higher in some Asian countries.

It's estimated that about 5 percent of patients being considered for treatment with affected drugs are of Asian ancestry and would need to have this test, which looks for an inherited variant of an immune system gene found almost exclusively in people with Asian ancestry, the FDA said.

Patients who test positive shouldn't be treated with carbamazepine unless the benefit clearly outweighs the increased risk of serious skin reactions, the agency said.


Excess Weight Reduces Women's Fertility: Study

The more overweight a woman becomes, the less fertile she becomes, according to results of a Dutch study published in the journal Human Reproduction.

Researchers evaluated 3,000 women with fertility problems and found that every point increase in body mass index (BMI) among women with a BMI between 30 and 35 resulted in a 4 percent decrease in conception rates, compared to women with a BMI between 21 and 29, BBC News reported.

People with a BMI above 25 are considered overweight, while those with a BMI over 30 are defined as obese.

The study also found that severely obese women (a BMI greater than 35) were between 26 percent and 49 percent less likely to get pregnant than those with a BMI between 21 and 29, BBC News reported.

"Given the increased prevalence of obesity, this is a worrying finding," said study leader Dr. Jan Willem van der Steeg. "We think women should be informed about their lower pregnancy chances due to their overweight."

The researchers suggested that losing weight may increase the likelihood of conception without the need for fertility treatment, BBC News reported.


Death Toll Reaches 30 in Uganda Ebola Outbreak

The death toll from an Ebola outbreak in Uganda is now 30 out of 116 people known to have been infected with the deadly virus, Agence France-Presse reported.

Health officials are still registering new infections in Bundibugyo district, the epicenter of the outbreak and home to 250,000 people. Hundreds of medical workers and villagers who have had physical contact with infected patients are under observation, Ugandan authorities said.

Experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are continuing their testing for the virus, which has been identified as a new strain of Ebola, AFP reported. The outbreak began in September but was only identified as Ebola in late November.

Ebola is a blood-borne disease that's spread through contact with bodily fluids.

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