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Health Highlights: May 21, 2008

Bush Signs Bill Banning Genetic Discrimination Merck Settles State Suits Over Vioxx Ads Lower-Income Children Visit E.R. More Often Government Ads Reveal Hospital Satisfaction Preterm Infants Twice as Likely to Have Birth Defects Food Compound Blocks Inflammatory Response Childhood Obesity a Major Problem in China

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

Bush Signs Bill Banning Genetic Discrimination

A bill to protect people against job dismissal or from losing their health insurance based on genetic testing results was signed into law Wednesday by President George W. Bush.

Supporters of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act gathered at the White House in support of the measure, which bars employers or insurers from discriminating against people whose genetic test results show they may be more susceptible to illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

Bush said the legislation protected "our citizens from having genetic information misused," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

One of the bill's most prominent supporters, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) wasn't able to attend the ceremony, having been newly diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.

"All of us are so pleased that Senator Kennedy has gone home, and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family," Bush said at the bill's signing.


Merck Settles State Suits Over Vioxx Ads

Merck & Co. will pay $58 million to settle lawsuits in 29 states over allegations that Merck ads for the now-defunct painkiller Vioxx under-represented the drug's risks, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The agreement includes a proviso that for seven years, Merck will submit all new televised drug ads to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for review, the wire service said.

Vioxx was removed from store shelves in 2004, after studies found the painkiller doubled users' risks of heart attack and stroke. Thousands of lawsuits have since been filed by former users and their families against the drug maker.

In commenting on the settlement, Merck did not concede wrongdoing and defended its marketing of Vioxx, the AP said.


Lower-Income Children Visit E.R. More Often

Children from families with lower incomes made nearly twice the number of emergency room visits in 2005 than children from higher-income families, a new U.S. government report revealed Wednesday.

The report was produced by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It compared 12 million emergency room visits involving children from households with an average income of $36,999 with those from families with an average household income of more than $61,000.

The rate from low-income families was 414 visits for every 1,000 children, compared with 223 visits for every 1,000 children from higher-incomes families, the agency said in a statement.

The report also found:

  • In 96 percent of cases, the children were treated and released.
  • In cases when a child was admitted to the hospital, the most common reasons were: pneumonia, asthma, acute bronchitis, appendicitis, dehydration, depression and epileptic convulsions.
  • About 45 percent of the E.R. visits were covered by Medicaid, 43 percent were covered by private insurance, 9 percent were uninsured, and 3 percent had other forms of coverage.


Government Ads Reveal Hospital Satisfaction

The U.S. government is shelling out nearly $1.9 million on newspaper ads to publicize patient satisfaction rates for 2,500 hospitals across the country, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The ads will include ratings on two primary issues: The percentage of respondents who felt the hospitals provided help when patients needed it, and the percentage of patients who were given antibiotics before surgery. The second rating focused on the need to prevent hospital-acquired infections.

The ads will run in 58 papers in 49 states. Delaware is the exception, but that state's hospitals will be included in ads appearing in neighboring Pennsylvania, the AP said.

Additional patient satisfaction measurements appear on the Department of Health and Human Services Web site at


Preterm Infants Twice as Likely to Have Birth Defects

Preterm babies (born before 37 weeks of gestation) are more than twice as likely as full-term infants to have major birth defects, say U.S. researchers who analyzed more than seven million live births in 13 states between 1995 and 2000.

Overall, eight percent of preterm infants had a birth defect, said the team of investigators from the March of Dimes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several other major institutions.

The risk was greatest in very preterm babies (born between 24 and 31 weeks' gestation), who were five times as likely as full-term infants to have a birth defect. The most common birth defects among very preterm babies were central nervous system defects, such as spina bifida, and cardiovascular defects, such as a hole in the heart.

The study is published online this week in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Each year in the United States more than 500,000 babies are born preterm and that rate continues to rise. Birth defects and preterm birth are the leading causes of infant death.

"The causes of most birth defects are still not known," study lead author Margaret Honein, of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said in a prepared statement. "While it is likely that the most common defects are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, the identification of specific risk factors continues to be a major research and public health priority."


Food Compound Blocks Inflammatory Response

A compound found in green peppers and celery can block part of a pathway that controls inflammatory response in the central nervous system (CNS), according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

They said the finding may have implications for research on aging and diseases such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis, United Press International reported.

The researchers found that a plant flavonoid called luteolin inhibited an important pathway in the inflammatory response of microglia, brain cells that play a critical role in the CNS immune system defenses, the news service said.

Luteolin reduced production of interluekin-6 -- used in cellular communication -- in the microglia inflammatory pathway by as much as 90 percent, according to the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This was just about as potent an inhibition as anything we had seen previously," researcher Rodney Johnson said in a prepared statement, UPI reported.


Childhood Obesity a Major Problem in China

Nearly one in five Chinese children under 7 years old is overweight, and more than seven percent are obese, according to a Chinese National Task Force on Childhood Obesity study released at the annual meeting of the World Health Organization.

"These numbers are higher than in European countries, while the gross domestic product in China is much lower," study leader Ding Zongyi told Agence France-Presse. "Only the United States (has) higher rates."

The researchers examined data on 80,000 children in 11 major cities and found a 156 percent increase in obese children and a 52 percent increase in overweight children between 1996 and 2006.

"This rate of increase has gone out of control," said Ding, who told AFP that Chinese children are eating too much high-fat, high sugar foods and aren't getting enough exercise.

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