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Health Highlights: Jan. 10, 2007

Wide Variations in Drug Plan Costs for U.S. Seniors Quick-Relief Drugs Favored by Asthma Patients L.A. Studies Ban on Trans Fats Toronto SARS Crisis Caused by Poor Hospital-Infection Control: Report Indonesia Reports 1st Bird Flu Death in 6 Weeks Gonorrhea Increases Bladder-Cancer Risk

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

Wide Variations in Drug Plan Costs for U.S. Seniors

A senior citizen in one U.S. state may pay thousands of dollars more in out-of-pocket expenses than a senior in another state who takes the same medications -- even if both seniors choose the lowest-cost Medicare Part D plans available to them, according to a University of Michigan (U-M) study.

"The expected costs of even the least expensive plans in each state varied by hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars," study leader and U-M health care policy researcher Dr. Matthew Davis said in a prepared statement.

In some cases, there was a difference of as much as $10,000 a year in the costs that seniors pay for the same drugs, depending on where they lived.

The study, published in the January issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, compares current costs in all Medicare Part D plans across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

It's anticipated that Congress may soon vote on whether to require the Medicare system to negotiate lower prices for drugs taken by millions of seniors enrolled in Part D prescription drug plans.

That proposed change, along with others, may save some seniors a lot of money, according to the study authors.

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Quick-Relief Drugs Favored by Asthma Patients

People with asthma are more likely to use drugs that provide quick relief of symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath than medications designed for long-term control of asthma, a new national survey released Wednesday found.

About 31 percent of asthma patients surveyed said they use quick-relief medications; 14 percent said they use longer-term preventive drugs to control their asthma symptoms; 31 percent said they use both kinds of medications; and 24 percent used no drugs, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which did the survey.

The survey of people with active asthma also found:

  • More than 25 percent reported having a peak flow meter at home for measuring their ability to expel air from their lungs
  • 48 percent of adults said they'd had at least one asthma attack in the previous year
  • Women were more likely to have asthma attacks than men -- 50 percent vs. 40 percent.

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L.A. Studies Ban on Trans Fats

Los Angeles is considering a ban on artery-clogging trans fats in restaurant food, the Associated Press reported.

City supervisors voted Tuesday to study the feasibility of prohibiting trans fats in restaurant meals. Public health officials will review the issue with community health organizations and the restaurant industry.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to ban trans fats in restaurants, the AP reported.

Trans fats have also been targeted by the U.S. federal government. Since early 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has required that labels on all packaged foods list trans-fat content.

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Toronto SARS Crisis Caused by Hospital-Infections: Report

Poor hospital-infection control led to the SARS epidemic that infected hundreds and killed 44 people in and around Toronto, Canada, in 2003, according to a report released Tuesday by an Ontario provincial commission investigating the outbreak.

"Systemic problems ran through every hospital and every government agency," Doug Hunt, chief counsel for the commission, said at a news conference to announce the release of the findings, The New York Times reported.

The SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak began in the Toronto area in February 2003 when a woman returned home after she was infected while on a trip to Hong Kong. She died shortly after she returned home to the Toronto area.

The woman's son became infected and spent 16 hours in a crowded hospital emergency waiting room, where he transmitted the SARS virus to two other patients. The virus continued to spread from there, the commission said.

In early May 2003, officials announced that the SARS crisis was over and surveillance and prevention measures were relaxed. As a result, early signs of a SARS outbreak at one hospital were not detected. In late May, health officials announced a second, larger SARS outbreak in the Toronto area. In total, 375 SARS cases were identified in Ontario.

The commission recommended dozens of changes to hospital practices and health surveillance and said the province's labor ministry should do more to protect workers from disease outbreaks, the Times reported.

Worldwide, there were more than 8,000 SARS infections and 774 deaths. Most of the infections and deaths occurred in Asia. Outside of Asia, the Toronto area was hardest hit by SARS. The virus has not posed a health risk in recent years.

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Indonesia Reports 1st Bird Flu Death in 6 Weeks

A 14-year-old boy in Indonesia who died of H5N1 bird flu Wednesday is the first person in the country to be killed by the virus in six weeks, health officials said.

The boy died four days after he was admitted to a hospital for flu-like symptoms. Prior to that, the last recorded bird-flu death in Indonesia occurred on Nov. 28 when a 35-year-old woman died at a Jakarta hospital, the Associated Press reported.

Since bird flu first appeared in Asian poultry flocks in 2003, 58 people in Indonesia have been killed by the H5N1 virus. That's more than a third of the worldwide bird flu death toll.

Over the past three months, there's been a dramatic decrease in the number of bird-flu infections and deaths in Indonesia. It's believed that may be partly due to a national campaign to vaccinate poultry and boost public awareness about bird flu, the AP reported.

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Gonorrhea Increases Bladder-Cancer Risk

Men who've had the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea are twice as likely as other men to develop bladder cancer, says a Harvard School of Public Health study in the British Journal of Cancer.

The researchers, who analyzed the medical histories of 286 bladder cancer patients, said inflammation caused by gonorrhea may be the reason for that increased risk, BBC News reported.

"Gonorrhea is an infection that often recurs, causing local inflammation and symptoms such as incomplete emptying of the bladder," said study lead author Dr. Dominique Michaud, assistant professor of epidemiology. "The inflammation itself or the associated symptoms could be contributing to the development of bladder cancer."

"This study strengthens the suspected link between infection with the gonorrhea bacterium and bladder cancer in men," Professor John Toy, medical director of Cancer Research UK, told BBC News. "The next step is to confirm whether the increased risk could be caused directly by the gonorrhea infection or its symptoms."

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