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Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2008

Anti-Flu Drug May Not Work Against This Year's Strain, CDC Says High Mercury Levels Sideline Actor Jeremy Piven New Federal Rule Poses Threat to Women's Health: Critics Zimbabwe's Cholera Epidemic Death Toll Passes 1,000: U.N. Richer Men More Likely to Be Overweight: Study

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

Anti-Flu Drug May Not Work Against This Year's Strain, CDC Says

This year's version of the flu just threw a monkey wrench into the effectiveness of a leading flu medicine, the Associated Press reports.

At a news conference Friday, Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the prescription drug Tamiflu isn't working against the virus strain that is causing this year's influenza in the United States.

The good news, Gerberding added, was that this year's vaccine is proving effective against the flu. The 2007 vaccine was only partially effective.

Because it's early in the flu season, the A.P. reports, and health experts aren't certain the Tamiflu-resistant strain will continue to dominate the influenza cycle. There is also the anti-viral drug marketed under the name Relenza that could be prescribed.

Only about 30 percent of the U.S. population has received a flu vaccine this year, the wire service reports. About 36,000 Americans die from the flu annually, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized. The vaccine is especially recommended for children between 6 and 18 months and adults over age 50.


High Mercury Levels Sideline Actor Jeremy Piven

The actor Jeremy Piven has been pulled out of the Broadway play "Speed the Plow" because he has "shocking levels" of mercury, Fox News reported.

Piven's doctor said he yanked him from the show after finding the actor had mercury levels six times the allowable limit. Dr. Carlon Colker said they were the highest levels he'd ever seen.

Colker said Piven's high mercury levels were caused by eating too much sushi and consuming Chinese herbs. Piven had complained of fatigue and was told to quit the show after he spent three days in hospital.

David Mamet, the play's writer, mocked Piven, saying the 43-year-old actor was leaving his role as leading man to "pursue a career as a thermometer," Fox News reported.


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.


Zimbabwe's 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.

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