Health Highlights: Jan. 23, 2009

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

Obama Overturns International Abortion Funding Ban: Report

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday overturning the ban on using federal funds for international groups promoting or performing abortion, CNN reported.

The so-called "Mexico City Policy" banned U.S. taxpayer money from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. It is also known as the "global gag rule," because it prohibited taxpayer funding for groups that even talk about abortion if there is an unplanned pregnancy, the Associated Press said.

The policy was instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and re-instituted by President George W. Bush in 2001, according to ABC News.

Most presidents acted on the ban on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but Obama held off on that move, thinking it too combative, ABC reported.


Drug Maker to Seek Approval for MS Pill

The first pill to treat multiple sclerosis shows promise, and drug maker Merck Serono says it will submit cladribine tablets for registration in the United States and Europe later this year.

MS patients taking the pills had an almost 60 percent lower relapse rate than those taking a placebo, according to a two-year study that included more than 1,300 patients, the Associated Press reported. The study was paid for by Merck.

"This is promising news," said Dr. Lee Dunster, head of research for the Multiple Sclerosis Society in the United Kingdom.

Dunster, who wasn't involved in the study, said the findings suggest cladribine is twice as effective as current primary treatments for MS, the AP reported.

There is no known cure for MS. Current MS treatments must be given by injections and have varying success rates. Known side effects of caldribine, currently used to treat leukemia, include fatigue, anemia and increased risk of infections.


CDC Gets New Acting Director

The Obama administration on Friday named Dr. Richard Besser, who headed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's public health emergency preparedness and response functions, acting director of the CDC. He succeeds Dr. Julie Gerberding, who stepped down after six years heading the agency, The Wall Street Journal reported.

An e-mail to CDC employees said that Besser would serve as acting director, but it wasn't clear if he would be Gerberding's permanent successor. Gerberding stepped down when President Barack Obama was sworn in this week. Her place was to have been temporarily taken by William Gimson III, the CDC's chief operating officer, but sources told the newspaper that since Gimson isn't a medical doctor, Besser was named instead.

Besser, 49, is a CDC veteran who served in the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, dealing with foodborne and infectious disease issues, the newspaper reported. A pediatrician by training, he also spearheaded a national campaign to prevent overuse of antibiotics and had been director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response.


More Americans Unable to Afford Prescription Drugs

The number of Americans under age 65 who went without prescribed medicines because they couldn't afford them increased from one in 10 in 2003 to one in seven in 2007, according to a study released Thursday by the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change.

Three in 10 low-income Americans, almost one in four adults on Medicaid or state insurance programs, and one in 10 working-age people with employer-sponsored coverage said they had problems affording drugs in 2007, The New York Times reported.

Overall, about 36.1 million children and adults under age 65 didn't have prescriptions filled in 2007 due to cost.

The current number of people who can't afford prescription drugs may be even higher due to the economic meltdown, according to study lead author Laurie E. Felland, a senior health researcher at the center.

"Our findings are particularly troublesome given the increased reliance on prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions," she told The Times. "People who go without their prescriptions experience worsening health and complications."

The study findings are based on an analysis of data from 10,400 adults under age 65 who took part in the 2007 national Health Tracking Household Survey.


Vitamin D May Help Maintain Seniors' Brain Health

Vitamin D may help fight age-related mental decline, according to a study that included 2,000 people aged 65 and older. Those with the lowest vitamin D levels were more than twice as likely to have cognitive problems than those with the highest levels of the vitamin, BBC News reported.

People with impaired cognitive function are more likely to develop dementia, noted the U.K. and U.S. authors of the study, which will be published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychology and Neurology.

Sources of vitamin D include fish and exposure to sunlight. But older people absorb less vitamin D from sunlight than younger people, said study co-author Dr. Iain Lang, of the Peninsula Medical School in the United Kingdom, BBC News reported.

"One way to address this might be to provide older adults with vitamin D supplements," Lang said. "This has been proposed in the past as a way of improving bone health in older people, but our results suggest it might also have other benefits."


Kentucky Has Highest Smoking Death Rate: CDC Report

Kentucky has the country's highest death rates from smoking, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study released this week.

Smoking death rates were tallied using death certificate data from 2000 through 2004, focusing on lung cancer and 18 other diseases caused by cigarette smoking, according to the report, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the Associated Press said Thursday.

West Virginia and Nevada ranked second and third among U.S. states with the highest smoking mortality rates, with Utah and Hawaii showing the lowest smoking death rates.

Kentucky had about 371 deaths out of every 100,000 adults age 35 and older, almost one-and-a-half times higher than the national median of 263 per 100,000, and almost three times the rate for Utah, which was 138 per 100,000.

Smoking deaths among males were higher than among females, the report said, but smoking rates dropped for men in 49 states since the late 1990s, while they declined for women in only 32 states.

Terry Pechacek, a CDC senior scientist for tobacco-related issues, told AP that smoking, especially when combined with obesity and another risk factors for heart disease, "is like gasoline on the fire." Kentucky and West Virginia also had the highest smoking rates in 2004 as well, according to the CDC report.

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