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Health Highlights: March 4, 2011

Fla. Judge Suspends His Ruling Against Health Reform Law FDA Warns of Birth Defects Tied to Epilepsy Drug High Blood Pressure Affects 1 in 4 U.S. Adults Congresswoman Giffords Continues Recovery Progress

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

Fla. Judge Suspends His Ruling Against Health Reform Law

A federal judge in Florida, who ruled in January that the controversial health-care reform law passed by Congress last spring is unconstitutional because it requires people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, stayed -- or suspended -- his own ruling on Thursday. This will allow the law to be implemented as the case progresses through the Courts of Appeal and on to the U.S. Supreme Court, The New York Times reported.

Judge Roger Vinson said the stay was conditioned on the U.S. Justice Department's pursuit of an expedited appeal, which he said had to be filed within seven days, the newspaper reported.

"The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be," Vinson wrote. "And yet, it has been more than one month from the entry of my order and judgment and still the defendants have not filed their notice of appeal."

Vinson had written that his decision should be considered the "functional equivalent" of an injunction, which would have blocked implementation of the law. But the Obama administration did not immediately cease implementing the law. And instead of seeking a stay of the judge's decision, it asked him to clarify his ruling. As a result, states were unsure how to proceed, with some stopping all planning for the new law and others acting as if it had to be carried out, the Times reported.

Following Vinson's stay on Thursday, Gov. Sean Parnell of Alaska, a Republican who said last month his state would not put the new law into effect following Vinson's initial ruling, said "our administration will treat the federal health care law as being in place," the Times reported

In recent lower court rulings on the Affordable Care Act, three judges appointed by Democratic administrations have so far supported the law, while two judges -- including Vinson -- appointed by Republican administrations have ruled it unconstitutional.


FDA Warns of Birth Defects Tied to Epilepsy Drug

The epilepsy drug Topamax (topiramate) and its generic versions increase the risk for the birth defects cleft lip and cleft palate in babies born to women who use the medication while pregnant, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday.

Before prescribing topiramate, which is approved to treat certain types of seizures in people who have epilepsy, health-care professionals should tell women of childbearing age about the potential risk, the agency said in a news release.

Topiramate is also approved to prevent migraine headaches, but not to relieve migraine pain.

"Health-care professionals should carefully consider the benefits and risks of topiramate when prescribing it to women of childbearing age," said Dr. Russell Katz, director of the FDA's Division of Neurology Products. "Alternative medications that have a lower risk of birth defects should be considered."

Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects that occur when parts of the lip or palate don't completely fuse together early in the first trimester of pregnancy, a time when many women don't know they're pregnant. Surgery often is performed to close the lip and palate and most children do well after treatment, the FDA said.

Citing new data from the North American Antiepileptic Drug Pregnancy Registry, the FDA noted an increased risk of oral clefts in infants exposed to topiramate during the first trimester of pregnancy.

As a result, topiramate will have a stronger warning on its label, and the patient medication guide and prescribing information for Topamax and generic topiramate will be updated with the new information, the agency said.


High Blood Pressure Affects 1 in 4 U.S. Adults

High blood pressure was reported by more than 59 million Americans age 18 and older in 2008 and three quarters of those people were overweight, obese or morbidly obese, says a federal government report released Thursday.

Nearly 32 percent of black adults had high blood pressure, compared with 27 percent of whites and 18 percent of Hispanics, according to the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

It also said that adults who did vigorous exercise for 30 minutes or more at least three times a week were one-third less likely to have high blood pressure than those who didn't exercise as much -- 21 percent vs. 32 percent.

Among the other findings from the analysis of 2008 data:

  • Among adults younger than 65, high blood pressure was reported by 29 percent with public health insurance, 19 percent with private insurance, and 14 percent of the uninsured.
  • High blood pressure was diagnosed in nearly 59 percent of those age 65 and older, 34 percent of those ages 45 to 64, 10 percent of those ages 25 to 44, and nearly three percent of younger adults.


Congresswoman Giffords Continues Recovery Progress

Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords recently sang "American Pie," and is eating chicken soup as she continues to recover from a gunshot wound to the head suffered during an assassination attempt in January, says a rabbi who has been visiting Giffords a couple of times a week.

She "is making the kind of progress that all of us would anticipate, whether it's words or emotions," Rabbi David Lyon told Houston TV station KHOU, reported.

He also said that Giffords, who is in the TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston, has a healthy appetite. She recently sang the classic folk rock song "American Pie" with her longtime friend Rabbi Stephanie Aaron.

"Gabby likes to reach out and hold my hand and she listens carefully and smiles easily. Prayer for her is meaningful," Lyon, of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, told KHOU, reported.

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