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Health Highlights: July 22, 2009

Employers' Family Health Insurance Cost $12,000-Plus in 2008 Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts Experimental Lupus Drug Shows Some Promise: Report

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

Employers' Family Health Insurance Cost $12,000-Plus in 2008

Employer-paid health insurance coverage for a family of four in the United States cost an average of $12,298 last year, according to a new U.S. government report.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality also said Wednesday that the annual premium to cover an employee and one family member averaged $8,535 in 2008. The annual premium for coverage of one employee averaged $4,386.

Nearly one-third of the nation's 62.5 million workers with employer-sponsored health insurance had family plans, according to the report. Eleven million workers had employee-plus-one plans, and 31.5 million employees were enrolled in single-coverage plans.

On average, workers with family-care coverage contributed $3,394 toward the premium payment, the report noted. Those with employee-plus-one plans averaged $2,303, and the single-coverage employees contributed an average of $882.


Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts

The United States could find itself short of swine flu vaccine if the virus becomes much more lethal and countries start to scramble for more of the vaccine, experts warn.

They noted that the United States makes only 20 percent of the flu vaccines it uses. The situation is even worse in Britain, which imports all its flu vaccines. Only a few countries are self-sufficient in vaccines.

"This isn't rocket science. If there is more severe disease, countries will want to hang onto the vaccine for their own citizens," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Associated Press.

Leaders of countries with adequate supplies of swine flu vaccine won't be willing to share with other nations, experts predict.

"Pandemic vaccine will be a valuable and scarce resource, like oil or food during a famine," David Fidler, an Indiana University law professor who has consulted for the World Health Organization, told the AP. "We've seen how countries behave in those situations, and it's not encouraging."


Experimental Lupus Drug Shows Some Promise: Report

An experimental drug for the autoimmune disease lupus has produced favorable results in a company-sponsored study. It could potentially become the first new drug for lupus in 50 years, USA Today reported.

The drug, Benlysta, helps to limit the immune system response that attacks lupus patients' tissues, often damaging vital organs.

Each of the 865 patients in the preliminary study were given standard therapy for lupus, which consists primarily of treatment with steroids. The researchers found that 52 percent of patients on a low dose of Benlysta and 58 percent of those receiving a high dose of the drug, in tandem with the standard therapy, experienced significant improvement, compared with 43 percent of those taking standard therapy and a placebo, USA Today reported.

Also, more Benlysta patients were able to reduce their dose of steroid, and with it the bloating and other side effects of steroid use, company officials said.

"All of the investigators we've shown [these results to] are just thrilled. They haven't had a good clinical trials result in years. Lupus patients should have some hope, too," said David Stump of Human Genome Sciences Inc., which developed the drug with GlaxoSmithKline.

Stump said the company plans to release the study results at a scientific meeting later this year, USA Today said.

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