Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2005

Food Labels Must List Allergenic Ingredients U.S. Establishes Umbilical Cord Blood Databank Lawsuit Targets Illinois Law on Emergency Contraceptive U.S. Women Having More 'Unwanted' Babies Bill Would Provide More Vaccine Liability Protections Many Girls Hate, Torture Barbie Dolls

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

Food Labels Must List Allergenic Ingredients

A new U.S. law that takes effect Jan. 1 requires food product labels to clearly inform consumers whether the products contain any ingredients that could affect people with food allergies.

Food labels will have to list ingredients made from any of the eight major allergenic foods -- eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soybeans, tree nuts and wheat, the Associated Press reported.

These ingredients account for 90 percent of food allergies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The law was created in response to concerns that many food product ingredient labels didn't list allergens or listed them using names that might not be recognizable to consumers, the AP reported.

About 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of children in the United States have food allergies, the FDA said. Each year in the United States, about 30,000 people require emergency department treatment for food allergies and about 150 people die.

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U.S. Establishes Umbilical Cord Blood Databank

President George W. Bush signed legislation Tuesday to establish a U.S. national databank of umbilical cord blood and bone marrow.

The databank is designed to help doctors quickly find a match for patients who need a transplant, the Associated Press reported. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in May and by the Senate on Dec. 16.

The law will give $79 million in federal funding to increase the number of cord blood units available for transplant matches. The goal is to have 150,000 cord blood units. That would be enough to provide more than 90 percent of patients needing them with a match, the AP reported.

The law also reauthorizes the U.S. national bone marrow transplant system, which is combined with the cord blood in the same database.

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Lawsuit Targets Illinois Law on Emergency Contraceptive

The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, has filed a lawsuit to stop Illinois from requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception.

The lawsuit claims that the Illinois law violates a pharmacist's right to refuse to provide the contraceptive on religious and moral grounds, the Associated Press reported.

The Illinois law, which took effect in April, says pharmacies that sell federally approved contraceptives must immediately fill prescriptions for emergency birth control if they have the contraceptives in stock. If the contraceptive is not in stock, the pharmacy must order it or transfer the prescription to a pharmacy selected by the patient.

If a druggist refuses to fill the prescription on moral grounds, another pharmacist must be available to fill the prescription.

The legal challenge to the Illinois law is being launched on behalf of five Walgreen Co. pharmacists who were suspended by the company for refusing to dispense the emergency contraceptive. The lawsuit also includes two other pharmacists who fear they may be hit with similar disciplinary action for refusing to dispense the medication, the AP reported.

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U.S. Women Having More 'Unwanted' Babies

More American women are having "unwanted" babies, says a survey released Monday by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

The 2002 survey of 7,643 women, ages 15 to 44, found that 14 percent of their recent births were unwanted at the time of conception, compared to nine percent in a 1995 survey, the Associated Press reported.

Researchers said they don't know if the increase reflects a change in attitudes about abortion.

"People have all kinds of attitudes that don't always reflect what they choose to do. We would never want to guess at people's attitudes based on their behavior," study lead author Anjani Chandra told the AP.

The rate of unwanted births was highest among girls younger than 18 (25.4 percent) and lowest among women aged 30 to 44 (10.4 percent). Among black women, the rate of unwanted babies was 26.2 percent, compared with 16.8 percent for Hispanics and 10.7 percent for whites.

The study also asked the women about other family planning and reproductive health issues. It found that about 42 percent of the women in 2002 said they never married, compared with 38 percent in 1995, the AP reported.

About 50 percent of women in this latest survey said they had lived with a man in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, an increase from 41 percent in 1995. The rate of breastfeeding among women who recently gave birth was 67 percent in 2002, compared with 55 percent in 1995.

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Bill Would Provide More Vaccine Liability Protections

In what critics charge is a massive Christmas present to drug companies, the U.S. House of Representatives Monday approved tougher liability protections for companies that make medicines to combat bird flu.

Proponents of the protections say they're needed in order to encourage drug makers to invest in vaccines to fight a feared bird flu pandemic, the Associated Press reports.

If potential liabilities outweigh potential profits, drug companies won't develop or produce vaccines, supporters contend.

The protections mean that people who seek damages on claims they were harmed by a vaccine would have to prove willful misconduct on the part of drug makers. This is a higher standard than negligence, which is the argument used in many liability suits in the United States.

"Negligence is much easier to prove; it's the failure to exercise reasonable care," Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, told the AP. "Willful misconduct is a much higher standard. You must intentionally misbehave. ... The high standard would clearly discourage many suits."

The push for additional liability protections for the drug makers was led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, (R-Tenn). He attached the legislation to the Defense Appropriations Bill, viewed by many as a must-pass bill.

The bill will be taken up by the Senate on Wednesday or Thursday.

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Many Girls Hate, Torture Barbie Dolls

Maiming, decapitation and being put in the microwave oven are just some of the tortures that Barbie dolls are subjected to by young girls, say researchers at Bath University in the U.K.

They found that the doll provoked rejection, hatred and violence among many girls, aged seven to 11. The researchers attributed the girls' feelings and actions to the fact that Barbie is a feminine icon, "plastic," and an unwelcome reminder of their childhood, BBC News reports.

"It's as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past," Dr. Agnes Nairn said. "The types of mutilation are varied and creative and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving."

The Barbie findings are part of research by Nairn and her colleagues into children's attitudes towards branded goods and marketing. Among their other findings - children seem to be more engaged by celebrities than toys.

"We were surprised to find that the most resonant discussions among the children did not center around toys and games, but on sports celebrities, pop stars and TV shows," Nairn told BBC News.

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