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Health Highlights: March 29, 2002

Smallpox Vaccine Cache a Windfall for U.S. U.S. Asthma Rates Leveling Off: CDC Study California Requires HMOs to Cover Morning-After Pill Study Links Worship to Disease, Death Protection Americans Spending More on Prescription Drugs Emergency Rooms are Busier, Calif. Study Finds V.A. Officials Reassigned After Journal Report

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

Smallpox Vaccine Cache a Windfall for U.S.

The drug giant Aventis Pasteur has announced that it will donate to the government 75 million-to-90 million doses of smallpox vaccine it has been keeping in cold storage for decades, reports HealthDay.

Health officials said the move could provide a short-term "safety net" against a smallpox attack -- provided the doses are still effective against the devastating virus. Aventis said the government has known about its smallpox vaccine for "many years," and that the company reminded officials of the supply after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But word of the doses didn't become public until yesterday.

The company said the market value of the doses topped $150 million, although it did not say how it arrived at that figure. It could not be immediately learned whether Aventis would receive a tax break for the donation.

Bill Hall, an HHS spokesman, said the government decided not to disclose the vaccine cache before now because "we didn't know if it was good or not." Although initial tests appear "very encouraging," officials said, the lots must undergo human testing by the National Institutes of Health to determine their potency.

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U.S. Asthma Rates Leveling Off: CDC Study

The numbers of Americans suffering from asthma don't appear to be on the rise anymore and may even be slightly dropping, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The latest data, released yesterday, show that deaths from asthma dropped from between 20 and 22 per 1 million people between 1995 and 1998 to about 17.2 deaths per million in 1999.

Hospitalizations from asthma actually rose to 17.6 per 10,000 people in 1999, from 15.7 per 10,000 in 1998. But those figures are still down from the average of 20 during most of the 1980s and early 1990s, reports the Associated Press.

An estimated 15 million Americans suffer from asthma, which can cause shortness of breath, wheezing and tightness in the chest.

The CDC figures show that blacks were 14 percent more likely than whites to have had an asthma attack in the 12 months before the study, a figure that experts believe is related to gaps in accessibility to healthcare.

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California Requires HMOs to Cover Morning-After Pill

Following its history in trying out new ideas, California has become the first state to require HMOs to pay for women's "morning after" contraceptives.

The order, signed Wednesday by Gov. Gray Davis, requires costs for the contraceptives to be covered by HMOs' participating pharmacists, in emergency situations or by pharmacists who don't contract with patients' HMOs, according to wire service reports.

The morning-after pill prevents pregnancy by blocking ovulation or fertilization if taken within 72 hours of sexual activity.

Planned Parenthood reportedly filled over 300,000 prescriptions of the morning-after pill nationwide in 2000, and the family planning clinics filled nearly 25,000 prescriptions in California alone in the same year.

That's up from just 3,419 prescriptions filled in the state in 1998.

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Study Links Worship to Disease, Death Protection

Here's food for thought this holy week of Easter and Passover: If you go to church or synagogue regularly, consider yourself blessed with the possibility of a longer life.

A new study suggests that regular attendance at a place of worship will give you some protection from dying early, especially from common diseases of the heart, lungs and stomach, reports HealthDay.

Researchers analyzed the health records of 6,525 northern Californians who were tracked from 1965 to 1996. Those who didn't consistently attend worship services were 21 percent more likely to have died than those who did.

In other words, six people who didn't attend regular services died for every five who worshiped routinely, says study lead author Doug Oman, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. "That can make a difference if you're the sixth one," he says.

Hundreds of studies have linked religious faith to good health. But this new study, which will appear in the April 4 issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, is one of the first to examine the connections between service attendance and specific diseases.

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Americans Spending More on Prescription Drugs

Americans spent 17.1 percent more on prescription drugs last year than in 2000, the fourth straight annual climb, according to a new non-partisan analysis.

Spending on prescription drugs totaled $154.5 billion in 2001, up from $131.9 billion a year earlier, the National Institute for Health Care Management Research and Educational Foundation says.

The non-profit group says only 50 drugs of the 9,482 on the U.S. market accounted for more than 62 percent of the total annual increase. According to the Associated Press, those drugs included:

  • Lipitor (cholesterol)
  • Zocor (cholesterol)
  • Vioxx (arthritis)
  • Celebrex (arthritis)
  • OxyContin (pain)
  • Celexa (anti-depressant)

The cost of the average prescription rose 10.1 percent in 2001 to $49.84. Antidepressants led the way, with sales up 20.2 percent to $12.5 billion. In second place were drugs to treat ulcers, with sales up 14.4 percent to $10.8 billion.

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Emergency Rooms are Busier, Handling More Serious Cases

Hospital emergency rooms are busier and are handling more serious cases than they did a decade ago, according to a new University of California study reported by the Associated Press.

Authors of the study, to be published in the April issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine, say their findings counter the notion that the typical ER is overcrowded with non-emergency cases.

Non-urgent visits -- defined as not requiring care within two hours of arrival -- actually fell 8 percent at California hospitals during the 1990s, the researchers say. At the same time, visits by critically ill people rose 59 percent, they report.

The study's authors did not offer a solution to the problem of ER overcrowding. But they point out that the physical number of emergency rooms fell 12 percent in the state during the 1990s due to a pattern of hospital closings and mergers.

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V.A. Officials Reassigned After Journal Report

Two Veterans Administration officials have been reassigned and an investigation has been launched into a medical journal's report that maggots were born in the noses of two comotose patients at a Kansas City, Mo., V.A. hospital four years ago.

This week's report in the Archives of Internal Medicine described insect and rodent infestation at the hospital in 1998, including eyewitness accounts that mice used to scamper over employees' feet in the administrative offices. Hospital officials say the problems have been corrected.

The V.A. says Regional Director Patricia Cosetti and Deputy Director Matt Kelly have been assigned to temporary duties in Washington, D.C., pending outcome of the investigation, reports the Associated Press.

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