Health Highlights: Dec. 18, 2008

New Federal Rule Poses Threat to Women's Health: Critics Cholera Epidemic Death Toll Passes 1,000: U.N. Richer Men More Likely To Be Overweight: Study U.S. Public Health Agency Leaders Being Replaced Illinois Company Faces Lawsuit Over Preemie Heart Drug

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

New Federal Rule Poses Threat to Women's Health: Critics

A new regulation the Bush administration says is designed to protect federally funded health care providers who refuse to perform procedures, such as abortion, that conflict with their religious and moral beliefs will seriously hinder millions of women's ability to get reproductive health services, critics charge.

The new rule gives federal health officials the power to halt federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, clinic, health plan, doctors' office or other body that fails to accommodate staff who exercise their "right of conscience." The regulation would apply to more than 584,000 health care facilities, the Washington Post reported.

The regulation, which was sought by conservative groups and abortion opponents, goes into effect in 30 days. Not only does it protect healthcare professionals, it also covers a range of workers, including support staff, trainees and even volunteers.

A wide range of groups are outraged by the new rule.

There are more than 17 million women across the country who will bear the burden of this harsh regulation, a disproportionate number of them low-income and women of color. Both groups rely heavily on public health programs as their only access to reproductive health services. But the new regulation allows almost any worker in a health care facility -- even a receptionist -- to turn them away, withhold information, and refuse to refer them elsewhere," Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup said in a statement released Thursday.

"As it is, low-income women and women of color already face tremendous barriers getting health care, including racial discrimination, inadequate funding of medical assistance programs, logistical obstacles such as inflexible work schedules and inadequate child care," said Northup, who called on President-elect Obama to immediately rescind the regulation when he takes office in January.


Cholera Epidemic Death Toll Passes 1,000: U.N.

The death toll from the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe has reached 1,111, and 20,581 suspected cases have been recorded, the United Nations said.

The capital city of Harare has been hit the hardest, with 328 deaths and more than 9,700 suspected cases, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, CNN reported.

Crumbling health care and water systems have allowed the waterborne disease to spread throughout Zimbabwe and into the neighboring nations of South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique.

This week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the Zimbabwe government's response to the epidemic, CNN reported. Ban noted that nearly 80 percent of people in Zimbabwe don't have access to safe drinking water and the majority lack proper sanitary facilities.


Richer Men More Likely To Be Overweight: Study

Wealthy men are twice as likely as lower-income men to be overweight, but richer women are no more likely to pack extra pounds than poorer women, according to a Statistics Canada report.

The analysis stemming from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey found that 65 percent of men and 53 percent of women are overweight.

Although they were more likely to be overweight, wealthier men ate more fruits and vegetables than men with lower incomes and made up for long work sessions by getting exercise on their down time, Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

However, richer men tended to eat out more often.

"People who often eat out tend to consume more calories and to have a higher (body mass index) than do those who usually eat home-prepared meals," wrote report authors Paul Veugelers and Stefan Kuhle of the University of Alberta's School of Public Health.

The reason wealthier women weren't more likely than poorer women to be overweight may be due to body perception, according to one expert.

"(Women) are more likely to be dieting and more likely to be working (out) and doing things about their weight. Men are very cavalier about it," Arya Sharma, professor of medicine and chair of obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, told the Globe and Mail.


U.S. Public Health Agency Leaders Being Replaced

The leaders of a number of U.S. government public health agencies are expected to resign or be shown the door as President-elect Obama's team takes control of the White House.

Each of the current public health agency chiefs has severe critics on Capitol Hill and in the public health community, and there have been repeated charges that the Bush administration has let politics play a major role in science policy, The New York Times reported.

On Tuesday, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach said he would resign on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Dr. Elias Zerhouni has already left his position as director of the National Institutes of Health, and it's widely expected that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Julie Gerberding will be replaced by the new administration.

In addition, National Cancer Institute director Dr. John E. Niederhuber is expected to surrender his post, but may remain at the institute, The Times reported.

One leading candidate for the new FDA chief is Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician and health commissioner of Baltimore. Last year, he petitioned the FDA to ban some pediatric over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.

Another short-listed candidate for FDA leader is Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. He's been a fierce critic of the safety of several big-selling medications.

There's wide agreement among drug companies, drug-safety advocates, and powerful members of Congress that the FDA needs a major overhaul.

"The FDA has increasingly lost its emphasis on public health, and all of us have been harmed as a result," Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, told the Times.


Illinois Company Faces Lawsuit Over Preemie Heart Drug

Illinois-based Ovation Pharmaceuticals illegally maintained a monopoly on the only two medicines approved to treat a potentially life-threatening heart defect in premature infants, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission alleges in a civil lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The FTC said that after buying the rights to the two medicines (NeoProfen and Indocin) a few years ago, the company boosted the drugs' prices by nearly 1,300 percent. The lawsuit seeks to prevent Ovation from maintaining simultaneous interest in the two drugs and also seeks forfeiture of all unlawfully obtained profits, the Associated Press reported.

Ovation set the price for both medications at about $500. Before it was acquired by Ovation, Indocin cost $36. Each year, the two drugs are used to treat an estimated 30,000 babies with the heart defect called patent ductus arteriousus. The only other option to drug treatment is surgery, which costs far more than the drugs and carries a risk of serious complications.

"As a result, hospitals have little choice but to pay Ovation's price," the FTC said in the lawsuit. "The artificially high prices that hospitals are forced to pay ultimately raise costs for families, tax-supported programs such as Medicaid, and other public and private insurers."

Ovation disputed the FTC's allegations, the AP reported.

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