Health Highlights: Feb. 20, 2015
Wrong Tax Info Sent to 800,000 HealthCare.gov Customers Strong Opposition to Release of Gene-Modified Mosquitoes in Florida Keys Public Access to Genetic Tests Made Easier by FDA Rapid Ebola Test Approved by WHO
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:
Wrong Tax Info Sent to 800,000 HealthCare.gov Customers
The federal government said Friday that it sent the wrong tax information to about 800,000 HealthCare.gov customers and has asked them to delay filing their 2014 returns.
A similar problem affecting about 100,000 people in California -- which runs its own health insurance market -- was announced Thursday by state officials, the Associated Press reported.
The federal government is investigating what led to the problem, according to Andy Slavitt, an administration official overseeing federal health insurance programs. He said the problem causes incorrect calculations of a "benchmark" premium used to help determine the subsidies people receive.
Affected customers started receiving notifications on Friday and are being asked to delay filing their tax returns until they receive corrected forms. The estimated 50,000 who have already filed will receive special instructions from the government, Slavitt said.
Also on Friday, federal officials announced a sign-up extension for uninsured people who could be hit by the health care law's tax penalties for the first time this year, the AP reported.
The extension could benefit several million households. Uninsured people who file their taxes and discover they're facing a fine will have between March 15 and April 30 to sign up for subsidized coverage through HealthCare.gov.
The penalties for being uninsured are increasing in 2015, the AP reported.
Strong Opposition to Release of Gene-Modified Mosquitoes in Florida Keys
A plan to release genetically-modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to combat mosquito-borne diseases has many residents worried.
The first-such proposal in the United States is from British biotechnology company Oxitec. It has applied to the Food and Drug Administration to conduct a trial in which several million genetically-modified mosquitoes would be released in an effort to fight two mosquito-borne diseases, dengue and chikungunya, The New York Times reported.
The FDA is still reviewing Oxitec's application, which has triggered anxiety and anger among many residents.
"This is the first time they are releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the country, and we have not given our consent," Mila de Mier, a real estate agent and one of the leaders of the campaign to block the trial until more research is done, told The Times.
"People can't be experimented on without their consent. When the mosquitoes are released, there is no way to recall it," she added.
An online petition by de Mier to block the project has collected more than 149,000 signatures. In other actions, opponents have made their views known at town hall meetings and other gatherings, and angry residents recently sent 1,600 emails to the Florida Key Mosquito Control District, which is workng with Oxitec on the project,The Times reported.
"We feel it's being jammed down our throats, and we are not getting answers," said Beth Eliot, another real estate agent. "The company that is saying that this is all safe is the company that stands to profit."
The genetically-modified mosquitoes are males -- which do not bite people -- that carry a gene designed to kill their offspring after they mate in the wild, thus reducing mosquito populations. Oxitec has released more than 70 million of these mosquitoes in field tests in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, Brazil and Panama.
Many experts say this is a safe and effective way to combat the two painful viral diseases dengue and chikungunya, The Times reported.
Public Access to Genetic Tests Made Easier by FDA
Americans will soon have easier access to DNA screening tests for serious genetic disorders that can be inherited by their children.
On Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said no preliminary review will be required before companies can sell what are known as carrier screening tests directly to the public. The tests -- currently given by health care professionals -- are used by healthy adults who may be carriers of severe genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs, the Associated Press reported.
The FDA also announced that it authorized the first direct-to-consumer carrier screening test from California-based genetic testing firm 23andMe, which was forced to remove its DNA tests from the market in 2013 due to a lack of scientific proof.
The test from 23andMe screens for genetic mutations behind a rare inherited disorder called Bloom syndrome, which causes short stature, increased risk of cancer and a number of other health problems. The disorder affects about 1 in 50,000 people, the AP reported.
Thursday's FDA announcement means that another 45 to 50 carrier screening tests made by 23andMe could be sold directly to the public, possibly by later this year, according to company CEO Anne Wojcicki.
She said her company's research shows that the general public can understand genetic test results.
"Our user comprehension studies have shown that people can get this information on their own without a physician and that there's potentially a real benefit to direct access," Wojcicki told the AP.
A notice of change about the genetic screening test regulations will be filed by the FDA and the agency will accept public comments for 30 days.
"The FDA believes that in many circumstances it is not necessary for consumers to go through a licensed practitioner to have direct access to their personal genetic information," said Alberto Gutierrez, director of FDA's office for diagnostics, the AP reported.
Rapid Ebola Test Approved by WHO
A 15-minute blood test for Ebola approved by the World Health Organization could help end the outbreak in West Africa by enabling health care workers to more rapidly identify, isolate and treat people with the deadly infectious disease.
The first rapid blood test for Ebola is less accurate than conventional tests, but trials in West Africa indicate the new test correctly identifies about 92 percent of people with Ebola, BBC News reported.
Also, the new test works without electricity, which means it can be used in remote areas.
Current Ebola testing analyzes the blood for fragments of Ebola's genetic material and requires a laboratory and can take between 12 and 24 hours to provide results, BBC News reported.
The new ReEBOV Antigen Rapid Test analyzes the blood for a different part of the virus. The test was developed by U.S. company Corgenix.
"While less accurate, the antigen test is rapid, easy to perform and does not require electricity," the WHO said. "It can therefore be used at lower health care facilities or in mobile units for patients in remote settings."
Where possible, results from the rapid test should be confirmed by conventional testing, the agency added.
"The new test could help to quickly confirm outbreaks in remote areas without the need to send samples to a testing clinic and wait for results," Dr Ben Neuman, a virology expert at the University of Reading in the U.K., told BBC News.
"The new test isn't about saving the lives of infected people, but it can help in the long run by making it easier and quicker to detect Ebola outbreaks," he added.
More than 23,250 people have been infected in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and 9,380 have died.