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Health Highlights: June 21, 2006

Resistant Staph Infections Are Global Problem Drug Prices in U.S. Jump in 2006, Surveys Find Indonesia Appeals for Bird Flu Aid 3 Million Test Tube Babies Born So Far Lowering Stress Could Boost Pregnancy Chances World's Women Ignorant About Fertility: Survey

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

Resistant Staph Infections Are Global Problem

As many as 53 million people worldwide may be carriers of a bacterial superbug that's becoming more resistant to antibiotics, the Times of London said Wednesday.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a serious staph infection, is frequently acquired by surgical patients and others in hospitals. While the germ can be carried harmlessly on the skin, the bacterium can be lethal if it enters the body.

The germ is spreading into the general community, where frequent physical contact can increase the risk of transmission, doctors at the Groningen University Medical Centre in the Netherlands wrote in the online version of The Lancet. Those most at risk of infection include homeless people, prisoners, military recruits, gay men, children in day-care centers, and athletes who participate in contact sports, the newspaper said.

The drug-resistant germ is becoming more prevalent even in Scandinavian nations that have waged the biggest campaign against MRSA, the scientists said.

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Drug Prices in U.S. Jump in 2006, Surveys Find

Prices for the most frequently prescribed drugs jumped sharply in the first quarter of the year, as the new Medicare drug coverage program was going into effect, two independent U.S. surveys found.

Wholesale prices charged by pharmaceutical companies rose 3.9 percent in the first three months of the year -- four times the inflation rate during the same span, according to an AARP analysis reported by the Associated Press.

The price of the popular sleep aid Ambien shot up 13.3 percent, and the top-selling cholesterol drug Lipitor jumped 4.7 percent to 6.5 percent, depending on the dose prescribed, the AARP said.

A separate survey by the patient advocacy group Families USA found similar price rises, the wire service reported. For the typical older American who takes an average of four prescription drugs, the price jumps translated to a $240 average increase over the 12 months ended March 31, the AARP said.

A drug industry trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, issued a statement calling the surveys "erroneous," the AP reported. The group said prices, in fact, had risen less than 2 percent since Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has accused Merck & Co. of conspiring with insurance companies to create lower copays for people who buy Merck's anti-cholesterol drug Zocor than for customers who would buy a soon-to-be released generic alternative, the AP said. Schumer asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

"It appears Senator Schumer is criticizing us because he says that our prices are too low. That's a new one," the wire service quoted a Merck spokesman as saying.

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Indonesia Appeals for Bird Flu Aid

On pace to overtake Vietnam as the nation hit hardest by human cases of bird flu, Indonesia is appealing to the world community for $50 million to help fight the deadly disease, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Indonesia said it needs the donations over the next three years to establish a system for fighting bird flu in poultry, according to a United Nations expert attending a bird-flu conference in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.

At least 39 people in Indonesia have died from the H5N1 strain of bird flu, second only to Vietnam's 42 human fatalities, the AP reported. Most of the victims had direct contact with infected poultry.

Experts fear the virus, which has killed 129 people worldwide since 2003, could mutate and become contagious between people, sparking a human pandemic.

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Three Million Test Tube Babies Born So Far

More than 3 million test tube babies have been born in the 28 years since the birth of the world's first, Louise Brown, an in vitro fertilization expert told a European fertility conference Wednesday.

About one million IVF treatments are administered worldwide each year, leading to about 200,000 babies annually, according to Jacques de Mouzon of the International Committee for Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies.

One in six couples worldwide has a fertility problem, the Agence-France Presse news service reported of de Mouzon's findings.

IVF is most available in Israel and is least used in Latin America, the expert said. His findings were presented at a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Prague.

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Lowering Stress Could Boost Pregnancy Chances

Reducing stress could help some women improve their chances of becoming pregnant, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta say.

A combination of stress management therapy and instruction on better diet and exercise "restored fertility" in 80 percent of participants in a small study, CBS News reported.

The researchers measured amounts of the stress hormone cortisol in study participants, who were ages 20-35. The scientists concluded that psychotherapy aimed at stress reduction could be an easier, less expensive alternative than fertility treatments.

Results were presented at a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Prague.

Israeli researchers at the same meeting offered additional evidence that lifestyle changes could boost fertility, noting that women who were entertained by a trained clown shortly before they received in vitro fertilization treatments were up to 35 percent more likely to conceive, news reports said.

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World's Women Ignorant About Fertility: Survey

Most women who participated in a global survey of fertility issues didn't know many of the basic facts about reproductive health, including the age at which female fertility begins to decline, the survey's sponsor said Tuesday.

Other questions dealt with the impact of sexually transmitted disease on reproductive health, the effects of contraception, and the percentage of couples who are infertile. None of the more than 17,000 respondents from 10 countries was able to answer all 15 survey questions correctly, the American Fertility Association (AFA) said in a statement.

Respondents with a college education were more knowledgeable about fertility issues than those with a high school background, the association said. The general lack of knowledge was especially prevalent in Uganda, where surveyors interviewed some 6,500 people, often traveling by bicycle from village to village, the AFA said.

Other participants were from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Slovak Republic, Argentina, Turkey, and Belgium. Survey results were announced Tuesday at a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproductive Endocrinology in Prague.

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