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Health Highlights: March 31, 2011

Report Calls For More Research Into Lesbian & Gay Health Automatic Faucets May Have More Germs Than Manual Ones: Study Water Walking Balls Dangerous: CPSC Pharmacies OK'd to Make Cheaper Version of Pre-Term Birth Drug: FDA Medicare Should Cover Costly Prostate Cancer Drug: Officials Radiation Levels High Outside Japanese Nuke Plant Exclusion Zone Report Assesses Health in U.S. Counties

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

Report Calls For More Research Into Lesbian & Gay Health

The unique health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people need to be studied, says a U.S. Institute of Medicine report released Thursday.

The institute noted that stigma makes many LGBT people hesitant to seek health care and, when they do, there is little research to help guide physicians in their care of these patients, the Associated Press reported.

To help improve that situation, researchers in all government-funded health studies should routinely ask participants about their sexual orientation and gender identity, just as they're asked about race and ethnicity, recommended the institute report, which is intended as technical advice to the U.S. National Institute of Health.

Advocates said the document could help lead to greater health equality for the LGBT community.

"This community is just ignored," Brian Moulton of the Human Rights Campaign told the AP. "This is really going to spark a long-term commitment to dealing with these issues."


Automatic Faucets May Have More Germs Than Manual Ones: Study

Hands-free, automatic faucets may actually be more germ-laden than traditional, manually operated taps, says a new study.

Johns Hopkins University researchers collected samples from 20 automatic and 20 manual faucets in patient care areas of Johns Hopkins Hospital over seven weeks, reported.

The team found Legionella bacteria growing in 50 percent of cultured water samples from the automatic faucets and in only 15 percent of water cultures from manual faucets. Legionella causes a severe and sometimes fatal type of pneumonia called Legionnaire's disease.

Further investigation revealed that Legionella was present on all of the main valves of four of the automatic faucets that were taken apart by the researchers. Manual faucets don't have those parts, reported.

The researchers also noted that automatic faucets are designed to conserve water, but decreased water flow may give bacteria more opportunity to grow because they aren't being flushed out of the faucet.


Water Walking Balls Dangerous: CPSC

Giant inflatable spheres called water walking balls are unsafe due to the risk of suffocation or drowning, warns the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The plastic, airtight balls are popular at resorts, malls, carnivals and amusement parks. People climb into them and try to move them across the surfaces of pools, lakes or rivers, the Associated Press reported.

But the CPSC said Thursday it "does not know of any safe way to use" water walking balls.

"We want to tell the public how dangerous these products are before someone is killed," said CPSC chairman Inez Tenenbaum, the AP reported. "Our investigation into water walking balls will not stop with today's warning."


Pharmacies OK'd to Make Cheaper Version of Pre-Term Birth Drug: FDA

Special pharmacies won't be forced to stop making a cheaper version of a new drug used to prevent preterm birth in high-risk women, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency recently gave KV Pharmaceuticals exclusive rights to produce the new drug, called Makena, which costs $1,500 per dose and went on sale this month. The high price shocked many because special pharmacies have long been making the drug for $10 to $20 a dose, the Associated Press reported.

KV Pharmaceuticals told special pharmacies if they didn't stop making the cheaper version of the drug they could face FDA action.

Not true, the FDA said Wednesday. Pharmacies can continue producing the less expensive version of the drug, the AP reported.


Medicare Should Cover Costly Prostate Cancer Drug: Officials

An expensive vaccine for men with advanced prostate cancer should be covered by Medicare, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Wednesday.

Provenge, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in April 2010, costs $93,000 a patient. The drug appears to extend patients' lives by about four months, the Washington Post reported.

"The evidence is adequate to conclude that Provenge improves health outcomes for Medicare beneficiaries" with metastatic prostate cancer "and thus is reasonable and necessary for that indication," CMS said in its announcement.

The proposal will be open to public comment for 30 days, with a final decision issued another 60 days after that, the Post reported.


Radiation Levels High Outside Japanese Nuke Plant Exclusion Zone

Radiation levels outside the exclusion zone around Japan's damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant are about two times higher than levels at which the International Atomic Energy Agency would recommend evacuations, say officials with the U.N. nuclear agency.

The IAEA readings were taken at the village of Iitate, which is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the nuclear complex that was crippled in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the Associated Press reported.

Japanese officials have said that people living within 12 miles (20-kilometers) of the Fukushima plant should evacuate and residents within 18 miles (30 kilometers) of the plant should stay indoors.

But U.S. officials have advised Americans to stay at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) away from the damaged facility, the AP reported.

A senior IAEA official said the agency had advised Japanese authorities to "carefully assess the situation."


Report Assesses Health in U.S. Counties

There can be stark differences in the health of Americans living just a few miles apart, finds a new report that examined wellness in nearly all of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States.

For example, Kendall is the healthiest of the 102 counties in Illinois. But right next door is LaSalle, which is ranked 65th in the state. Smoking rates in LaSalle are double the national average and twice as many residents of LaSalle are in poor or fair health than in Kendall, the Associated Press reported.

Kendall is located on the edge of Chicago's metropolitan area, while LaSalle is more farming-based. The differences between the counties show how health levels in counties are partly affected by being suburban or rural and proximity to large cities and high paying jobs, said the authors of the second annual health rankings report from the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was released online Wednesday.

"Affluent suburbs tend to have higher paying jobs, often in the cities, whereas rural communities often are dealing with loss of business," and shrinking populations of young people, who tend to be healthier, Dr. Patrick Remington, of the Population Health Institute, told the AP.

He also noted that people in rural communities also tend to have less access to health care and higher rates of smoking and substance abuse.

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