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Health Highlights: May 23, 2016

NFL Tried to Influence Government Study on Concussions: Report Fitbit Heart Monitors 'Highly Inaccurate,' Study Says Five Cases of Zika-Linked Microcephaly in Colombia Since Start of Year Opioid Prescriptions Drop for First Time in Two Decades

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

NFL Tried to Influence Government Study on Concussions: Report

A new Congressional report claims that National Football League officials tried to influence the outcome of a government study that examined the link between concussions and brain disease.

Rep. Frank Pellone (D-N.J.), who oversaw the report, said in a statement Monday that the NFL tried to convince the U.S. National Institutes of Health not to award the study to a researcher the league felt was biased, the Associated Press reported.

The NFL backed out of a $30 million donation for brain research after the NIH went ahead and awarded a $16 million grant for the study to that researcher, Robert Stern, the wire service reported. Stern, from Boston University, is a leading expert on the link between football concussions and brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to the AP.

The NFL flatly denied the findings.

"The NFL rejects the allegations," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. The league acknowledged it had raised concerns about the study and a potential conflict of interest involving Stern. However, McCarthy insisted the league communicated its concerns through the proper channels, the AP reported. Also, the league stands by its $30 million promise, McCarthy added.

Critics have claimed the NFL has long downplayed the link between football and brain damage, and that an NFL committee on brain injury had minimized the link between repetitive head trauma and brain damage.

"This investigation confirms the NFL inappropriately attempted to use its unrestricted gift as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics," Pallone said. "Since its research agreement with NIH was clear that it could not weigh in on the grant selection process, the NFL should never have tried to influence that process."

Pallone also told the AP that the report found that NIH officials acted properly. NIH policy prohibits donors from influencing which researchers receive grants.


Fitbit Heart Monitors 'Highly Inaccurate,' Study Says

Fitbit heart rate trackers are "highly inaccurate," according to a new study.

The heart rates of 43 healthy adults were checked during rest and exercise using Fitbit's PurePulse heart rate monitors. Their heart rates were then checked with a BioHarness device that produced an electrocardiogram (ECG), CNBC reported.

The results showed that the Fitbit monitors miscalculated heart rates by up to 20 beats a minutes during more intensive exercise, the researchers at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona found.

"The PurePulse Trackers do not accurately measure a user's heart rate, particularly during moderate to high intensity exercise, and cannot be used to provide a meaningful estimate of a user's heart rate," they wrote.

The study was commissioned by the law firm Lieff Cabraser, which is handling a class action suit targeting three Fitbit models that use the PurePulse heart monitor: Fitbit Blaze, Fitbit Charge HR and Fitbit Surge, CNBC reported.

A Fitbit statement posted by Gizmodo challenged the findings.

"What the plaintiffs' attorneys call a 'study' is biased, baseless, and nothing more than an attempt to extract a payout from Fitbit. It lacks scientific rigor and is the product of flawed methodology," according to the statement, CNBC reported.

"It was paid for by plaintiffs' lawyers who are suing Fitbit, and was conducted with a consumer-grade electrocardiogram -- not a true clinical device, as implied by the plaintiffs' lawyers. Furthermore, there is no evidence the device used in the purported 'study' was tested for accuracy."

Earlier this year, a separate study by Ball State University in Indiana and NBC-affiliated TV station WTHR found that the Fitbit Charge HR had an average heart rate error rate of 14 percent, CNBC reported.

"Calculating a heart rate that's off by 20 or 30 beats per minute can be dangerous -- especially for people at high risk of heart disease," that study warned.

In a written reply to WTHR, Fitbit said its devices "are designed to provide meaningful data to our users to help them reach their health and fitness goals, and are not intended to be scientific or medical devices," CNBC reported.


Five Cases of Zika-Linked Microcephaly in Colombia Since Start of Year

Five babies have been born in Colombia with Zika-related microcephaly so far this year, health officials said on the weekend.

In April, Colombian officials said there had been two cases so far this year of microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads, the Associated Press reported.

There have been 4,097 confirmed cases of Zika in pregnant women in Colombia so far in 2016, the National Health Institute said Saturday.

Along with microcephaly, the mosquito-borne Zika virus can also cause a paralysis condition called Guillain-Barre, the AP reported.

According to the World Health Organization, Brazil has by far the number of cases of microcephaly linked to Zika virus infection, with 863 cases so far reported.


Opioid Prescriptions Drop for First Time in Two Decades

In a sign that the opioid painkiller epidemic might have peaked, new data shows that the number of U.S. prescriptions for the powerful painkillers has dropped for the first time in 20 years.

Ever since Oxycontin was first brought to the market in 1996, prescriptions have skyrocketed. But, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, fewer people were prescribed these highly addictive medications, The New York Times found in an analysis of several sources of data.

The trend suggests that doctors might finally be responding to repeated government efforts to curb use of the potentially dangerous drugs, experts told the Times.

"The culture is changing," Dr. Bruce Psaty, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies drug safety, told the newspaper. "We are on the downside of a curve with opioid prescribing now."

IMS Health, which gathers prescribing information for the health care industry, found a 12 percent decline in opioid prescriptions in the United States since a peak in 2012, the Times reported. Another data company, Symphony Health Solutions, reported an 18 percent drop during the same time period, the newspaper said.

And IMS also found that opioid prescriptions have fallen in 49 states since 2013.

But those figures have not translated into fewer fatal overdoses from opioids, the newspaper added. Those statistics continue to increase, with more than 28,000 deaths reported in 2014, according to the most recent federal health data.

Those deaths include overdoses from both prescription painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin, and heroin, the related drug that many have turned to as access to prescription drugs has become more restricted.

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