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Health Highlights: July 21, 2006

HHS Chief's Foundation Got Tax Breaks, Gave Little to Charity: Report Senators Peck at U.S. Bird Flu Testing Program More U.S. Doctors Using Electronic Medical Records Study Finds High Lead Levels in Paints FDA Scientists Cite Agency Shortcomings in Poll U.S. Warns of Unapproved Lyme Disease Remedy Drugmakers Given OK to Color Pills

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

HHS Chief's Foundation Got Tax Breaks, Gave Little to Charity: Report

A charitable foundation set up by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and his relatives enabled them to claim millions of dollars in tax deductions while providing little to charity, The Washington Post reported Friday.

The foundation was set up in 2000 with almost $9 million from Leavitt family assets. Much of that money went into investments or loans to the family's business interests and real estate holdings.

Less than 1 percent of the Leavitt Foundation's assets were donated to charity in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the Post reported. And since 2000, Mike Leavitt alone has claimed about $1.2 million in tax write-offs.

"They're basically sitting on all this money, getting a charitable write-off and doing nothing with it," said Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

The Post had asked Cohen to review the Leavitt Foundation's records and tax returns.

Christina Pearson, an HHS spokeswoman, said the foundation's activities are 'totally legal and proper.'

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Senators Peck at U.S. Bird Flu Testing Program

The voluntary nature of the U.S. Agriculture Department's bird flu testing program threatens the U.S. poultry industry, a group of U.S. Senators (five Democrats and one Republican) wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

The letter cited a federal audit that found that the U.S. government does not have a comprehensive plan for bird flu testing and monitoring in the commercial poultry industry, the Associated Press reported. A plan will be in place by October, says the Agriculture Department.

"It is surprising that USDA does not have a program that monitors and collects data on what testing is taking place," the senators wrote in the letter. "We are deeply concerned that the agency has waited until this year to begin to develop a comprehensive surveillance plan for avian influenza, which will not be complete until October."

They contend that USDA is relying too heavily on states and noted that many states don't have enough staff help to coordinate a bird flu surveillance program, the AP reported.

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More U.S. Doctors Using Electronic Medical Records

In 2005, 23.9 percent of office-based American doctors were using partial or full electronic medical records (EMRs), an increase of 31 percent from the number of doctors using them in 2001, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The survey of about 1,900 doctors found that those in the Midwest (26.9 percent) and West (33.4 percent) were more likely to use EMRs than those in the Northeast (14.4 percent).

Doctors in metropolitan areas (24.8 percent) were more likely to use EMRs than those in non-metropolitan areas (16.9 percent).

Solo practitioners -- who account for a third of doctors but for two-thirds of medical practices -- were least likely to used EMRs.

Despite increased use, the report noted that only 9.3 percent of doctors used EMRs with all four of the basic functions considered necessary for a complete EMR system. The four functions are: computerized orders for prescriptions, computerized orders for tests, reporting of test results, and physician notes).

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Study Finds High Lead Levels in Paints

Some paints used in China, India and Malaysia have lead levels that are much higher than the legal limit in the United States and pose a serious health hazard to children, says a University of Cincinnati study in the September issue of the journal Environmental Research.

These dangerously-high lead levels pose a threat to children around the world because the paints may be used on products that are shipped to other countries. Lead can cause brain damage and other health problems in children.

The researchers sampled 80 paints in four countries. They found that about 50 percent of paint sold in China, India and Malaysia had lead levels 30 times greater than the U.S. limit of 600 parts per million, and some of the paints had levels as much as 300 times the U.S. limit, Agence France Presse reported.

About 10 percent of paint sold in Singapore had lead levels higher than the U.S. limit.

Previous research found high lead levels in paint sold in Indonesia, Peru and the Seychelles.

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FDA Scientists Cite Agency Shortcomings in Poll

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration seems to care more about speeding new drugs to market than ensuring medication safety, more than one-third (37 percent) of the agency's scientists said in a new survey.

The poll, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, also found that 39 percent of the 997 FDA scientists surveyed said the agency wasn't "acting effectively to protect public health," the Baltimore Sun reported Friday. Another 32 percent said the FDA didn't always release complete and accurate information to the public, the newspaper reported.

An FDA spokeswoman called the survey unscientific and "a counterproductive exercise based on leading questions and innuendo."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a statement saying the FDA was in need of "a major overhaul and a culture change at the highest levels," the Sun reported.

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U.S. Warns of Unapproved Lyme Disease Remedy

Citing at least one death from an unapproved remedy for Lyme disease, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors and consumers Friday against use of the product, called "bismacine," and also known as chromacine.

The agency issued a statement saying the injected product is not FDA-approved to treat any condition whatsoever. The product contains high amounts of bismuth, a heavy metal used in some pill remedies to treat bacteria that cause stomach ulcers. But the agency said the substance is not approved to be injected.

Poisoning from bismuth can lead to cardiovascular collapse and kidney failure, the FDA warned.

In April, one person died after using the product, and at least one other person has been hospitalized after receiving bismacine, the agency said. The product isn't considered a pharmaceutical and has been dispensed by individual druggists, alternative health practitioners, or by people claiming to be medical doctors, the FDA added.

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Drugmakers Given OK to Color Pills

Drugmakers have been granted U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to begin using pigments to color pills, tablets, and liquids to brighten their appeal, the Associated Press reported.

The pearlescent pigments, similar to those that give cosmetics a pearly sheen, can produce metallic, satiny, and shimmery finishes, the wire service said. The FDA approved their use some eight years after a New Jersey firm first petitioned the agency, the AP added.

Similar pigments are used in lipsticks, eye shadows, nail polishes and automobile paints, the wire service said. Four years ago, the FDA approved their use in coloring contact lenses.

The new rule specifies that the pigments cannot comprise more than 3 percent of the drug's weight, the AP noted.

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