Health Highlights: June 16, 2003

Many States Limiting Drug Choice for Medicaid Patients No Consensus on SARS Treatment Europe Bans Prairie Dog Imports From U.S. Male Cyclists Risk Impotence, Study Says 28 Countries Sign Anti-Tobacco Treaty Folic Acid May Cut Risk of Cleft Palate

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

Many States Limiting Drug Choice for Medicaid Patients

In an attempt to control rapidly increasing Medicaid costs, more and more states are limiting which drugs doctors can prescribe for Medicaid patients, The New York Times reports.

These preferred drug lists direct doctors to avoid prescribing the most expensive drugs in favor of less expensive drugs that are considered equally effective. Many employee health plans and private insurance companies use the practice.

Congress is also considering a preferred drug list as part of a government-subsidized drug benefit for 40 million people enrolled in Medicare, the Times reports.

Two years ago, only three states used the preferred drug list for Medicaid patients. Since then, 19 other states have approved similar programs, though not all of them are yet in place.

The move has yielded some major expense reductions. The program is saving more than $200 million a year in Florida and $45 million a year in Michigan, officials say.

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No Consensus on SARS Treatment

Health experts attending a SARS conference in Hong Kong over the weekend failed to agree on how best to treat the potentially fatal respiratory disease.

While Hong Kong doctors reported they've had success using a combination of steroids and the anti-viral drug ribavarin, that treatment hasn't produced good results in other areas of the world, CBC News Online reports.

Some other doctors treating SARS patients are using a combination of anti-AIDS drugs and ribavarin.

One problem facing researchers is that the SARS outbreak appears to be winding down. That means there are fewer people with SARS on which to test new therapies.

On Monday and Tuesday, the World Health Organization is holding a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Scientists will review clinical and laboratory findings on SARS, along with epidemiological data.

They'll also discuss strategies to control SARS outbreaks, CBC News Online reports.

On Sunday, Taiwan reported five new SARS cases, while Hong Kong reported one death from the disease. There were no new reported cases or deaths in China.

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Europe Bans Prairie Dog Imports From U.S.

In response to the monkeypox outbreak in the United States, the European Union has banned imports of prairie dogs from the U.S., the Associated Press reports.

The EU also imposed on ban on the importation of squirrels and other non-domestic rodents from sub-Saharan Africa.

About 1,000 prairie dogs are imported into EU countries each year. Most go to the Netherlands, where the prairie dogs are sold as pets or to zoos. Currently, there are no cases of monkeypox in the EU.

Twelve human cases have been confirmed in the United States, along with 71 suspected infections, the AP reports. No one in the United States has died of the disease in the outbreak, which is the first time monkeypox has been seen in the Western Hemisphere.

It's believed prairie dogs sold as pets in the United States were infected by a Gambian giant rat imported from Africa.

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Male Cyclists Risk Impotence, Study Says

A Belgian study says male cyclists are twice as likely to suffer from impotence as men who don't ride bikes, BBC News Online reports.

Researchers from University Hospital in Brussels tested 1,000 cyclists to determine how the sport affects their bodies. The study found that more than 60 percent of men and women reported genital discomfort.

Along with the conclusion that impotence was a major problem for male cyclists, the researchers also found that genital swelling in women riders was much more common than previously believed, BBC News Online reports.

To minimize problems, the researchers suggest cyclists sit upright whenever possible and stand on the pedals every 10 minutes.

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28 Countries Sign Anti-Tobacco Treaty

A United Nations anti-tobacco treaty was signed Monday by 28 countries, and supporters say the measure will get the required 40 signatures and take effect within a year, the Associated Press reports.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the World Health Organization's first treaty. It was adopted last month after four years of difficult negotiation and resistance from some countries, including the United States.

The treaty is meant to reduce the global toll of death and illness caused by smoking. Among its measures, the pact provides for strict limits on tobacco sponsorship and advertising, restrictions on public smoking, and calls for tougher health warnings on tobacco products.

It's estimated that tobacco-related health problems kill 4.9 million people around the world each year. That could grow to 10 million a year in the next 25 years.

The treaty will come into force once at least 40 countries have signed and ratified it. Norway became the first nation to adopt the treaty, the AP reports.

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Folic Acid May Cut Risk of Cleft Palate

Pregnant women who take folic acid may reduce their chances of having a baby with cleft lip and palate, says a British study.

Researchers at the Institute of Child Health in London say that extra supplements of folic acid may benefit women who have a family history of the condition.

"Our research has shown that there may be a susceptible group of women where taking additional folic acid early in pregnancy may lower the risk of having a child with cleft lip and palate," the study's lead researcher told BBC News Online.

It's recommended that women take folic acid while trying to conceive and during the first three months of pregnancy. It is known that folic acid reduces the risk of spina bifida and brain damage in babies. Recent research has also suggested that folic acid may reduce the likelihood of Down's Syndrome and leukemia.

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