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Health Highlights: Jan. 15, 2009

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

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

Health Care Reform Near Top of Public's Wish List for 2009

When it comes to what the American public wants its political leaders to attack first in the coming year, health care reform is near the top of the list, a new survey shows.

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office next Tuesday, researchers from the Kaiser Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health report that finding ways to help the newly unemployed afford basic health insurance was outranked only by efforts to help businesses generate new jobs while preserving old ones as the most pressing political mandates for the future.

While improving the economy is overwhelmingly the top priority -- three-quarters of those surveyed said that should be the first business for the new Administration -- 43 percent view health care as a top concern, ranking it third just behind fighting terrorism, at 48 percent. Health care was of greater concern than reducing the federal budget deficit (39 percent), improving public schools (37 percent), working to create more clean energy sources (36 percent) and dealing with Iraq (35 percent). More than 60 percent of Americans believe that in light of the overwhelming economic problems facing the country, "it is more important than ever to take on health reform now."

"The economic crisis has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for health reform. But we are in the early happy talk stage on health reform, and the window could close if policymakers cannot move fairly quickly to take advantage of the opportunity they have," Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman said in a news release.

A key health reform idea that draws support from both liberals and conservatives is more regulation of health insurance companies and more consumer protections.

That's not to say that members of each political party hold the same opinion on how to do that.

"We can see the framework of a winning package of health reform proposals from the public's perspective," said Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. But there are some distinct differences among partisans that will pose a challenge to policymakers, he added, "with the key split being how to pay for health care reform."

Conducted last December among a nationally representative random sample of 1,628 adults aged 18 and over, the survey involved phone interviews that were done in both English and Spanish.


Pneumonia Vaccine for Young Children Works: CDC

A pediatric pneumonia vaccine introduced in 2000 has led to a significant drop in hospitalizations for young children with the respiratory disease, U.S. health officials reported Thursday.

In 2006, the rate of hospitalizations for pneumonia among children 2 years old or younger was 8.1 per 1,000 children -- 35 percent lower than the rate before the vaccine was introduced. This reduction means there were an estimated 36,300 fewer pneumonia hospitalizations in 2006, compared to pre-vaccine levels, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) is a leading bacterial cause of childhood pneumonia, which accounts for an estimated 8 percent of all childhood hospital admissions, the CDC said.

Routine childhood immunization with the PCV7 vaccine began in 2000 and substantial declines in hospital admissions for pneumonia in young children were previously reported through 2004, the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The updated results confirm that pneumococcus is a leading cause of pneumonia in children, and they show the need for continued monitoring of the immunization program's effects on pneumonia hospitalizations among children, the CDC said.


House OKs Widened Coverage in Children's Insurance Program

The U.S. House of Representatives approved Wednesday an expansion of a children's health insurance program that would extend coverage to about 400,000 to 600,000 children, including those of legal immigrants and pregnant legal immigrants, the Associated Press reported.

The vote was 289 to 139, and the Senate was expected to take up the measure Thursday, AP said.

The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation was vetoed twice by President George W. Bush in 2007, but supporters were confident the bill would pass soon after President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

"In this moment of crisis, ensuring that every child in America has access to affordable health care is not just good economic policy, but a moral obligation we hold as parents and citizens," Obama said after the House vote.

Current law requires legal immigrants to wait five years before becoming eligible for coverage under the SCHIP and Medicaid programs. The new bill means, supporters say, that children can get quicker treatment for acute conditions such as asthma and diabetes without having to seek care in an emergency room. Critics had opposed lifting the five-year waiting period, saying it violated a pledge by immigrant sponsors that people coming into the United States would not be dependent on government assistance, AP reported.

The measure adds $33 billion to fund SCHIP over the next four years, and will come from a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on a pack of cigarettes and comparable increases for other tobacco products.


Software Glitch Exposed Vets to Wrong Drug Doses

A glitch during an annual software upgrade last August at Veterans Affairs health centers around the country exposed some patients to incorrect drug doses, delayed treatments and other medical errors, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press.

While no evidence of serious harm was shown, the VA only began issuing safety alerts to medical centers on Oct. 10, and all the glitches were corrected in December. Nine patients at VA centers in Milwaukee, Durham, N.C., and Marion, Ind., were given incorrect drug doses, six of them involving heparin drips given for up to 11 hours longer than necessary, the AP reported Wednesday. Other errors involved drug infusions that continued for up to 15 hours past the doctor's prescribed deadline. Nearly one-third of the VA's 153 medical centers reported seeing some kind of glitch.

The problems are of concern since the federal government is pushing toward universal use of electronic medical records to curb medical errors blamed on paper systems, such as poorly written prescriptions. President George W. Bush supported the effort, and incoming President-elect Barack Obama has proposed spending an additional $50 billion a year for health IT programs, AP said.

But health care experts say the VA's problems highlight the need for closer monitoring. Dr. Jeffrey A. Linder, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who has studied electronic health systems, told the news service, "There's a lot of hype out there about electronic health records, that there is some unfettered good. It's a big piece of the puzzle, but they're not magic. There is also a potential for unintended consequences."

The VA's glitches involved medical data that sometimes popped up under another patient's name on the computer screen, the AP said. When doctors pulled up records of different patients within 10 minutes of each other, the first patient's data sometimes appeared under the second person's name. In some records, a doctor's stop order for intravenous injections also failed to clearly display.

VA officials told the AP that veterans with questions can request a copy of their medical records by accessing the "My HealtheVet" online system at

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