Health Highlights: Aug. 10, 2004

Immigration Questions Worry Hospitals Group Promotes 'E-prescribing' Genes May Explain Anxiety in Women 2nd FDA Review Confirms Antidepressant Risks: Report Most Seniors Turn Thumbs Down on New Drug Law Iraq Vets Suffer Stress Disorders Akin to Those of Vietnam

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

Immigration Questions Worry Hospitals

Hospital officials are concerned about having to ask patients about their immigration status in order to qualify for their share of $1 billion in U.S. government money to provide emergency care to undocumented immigrants.

This kind of questioning could discourage those immigrants from seeking necessary hospital care, say hospital officials and advocates for immigrants.

Congress made the decision last year to make the money available to hospitals, a decision welcomed at the time by hospital executives and state officials, the New York Times reported.

But guidelines developed in recent weeks require hospitals to ask patients about their immigration status. The guidelines are supposed to ensure that the money will be used to help undocumented immigrants get emergency medical care, federal officials said.

"We are extremely concerned about this requirement. It will deter Latino communities from seeking emergency care. That could lead to serious public health problems, including the spread of communicable diseases," Marcela G. Urrutia, an analyst at the Hispanic civil rights group the National Council of La Raza, told the Times.

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Group Promotes 'E-prescribing'

A new alliance called Cafe Rx is meant to encourage doctors, patients, insurers, and retail pharmacies to embrace a concept called "e-prescribing."

Cafe Rx was formed by nine of the leading health-care Internet technology solution providers in the United States. The announcement was made Tuesday at the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs' Educational Forum in San Francisco.

Using e-prescribing, a doctor can electronically submit a prescription directly to a pharmacy. Proponents say it can reduce medical errors and improve patient care.

In order to encourage e-prescribing, Cafe Rx will provide strategies and education to doctors and payers.

Last year, most of the 3.7 billion prescriptions issued in the United States were written by hand, and there were an estimated 150 million calls from pharmacists to doctors' offices seeking clarification on handwriting, dosing, and other issues.

As many as 40 percent of prescriptions have to be reworked at retail pharmacies before being dispensed to patients.

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Genes May Explain Anxiety in Women

A variation in a gene that controls regulation of a brain chemical linked to mood may help explain why women are more prone to stress-related anxiety and mood disorders, says a U.S. study.

In research with monkeys, scientists at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse identified the gene variant called the "s allele," BBC News Online reported.

This variant results in reduced production of a protein that regulates serotonin levels in the brain. Previous research suggests that people with this gene variant are more likely to suffer depression after having a bad experience.

This new study tested the effects of social separation on infant monkeys. It found that female monkeys with both the s allele gene variant and a history of adversity had the highest levels of stress hormones.

The study appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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2nd FDA Review Confirms Antidepressant Risks: Report

A second review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has confirmed earlier findings that children who use certain adult antidepressants are at an increased risk of suicide, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Six months ago, the agency was criticized for withholding results of the first internal review, which found that children who use certain antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Drugs in this class include brand names such as Paxil, Zoloft, and Celexa. Only one SSRI, Prozac, has been FDA-approved for pediatric use.

The newer analysis reached the same conclusion as the first, the newspaper said. Prepared by FDA medical reviewer Tarek Hammad, it found that children who used the antidepressants during clinical studies had 1.78 times the risk of making a suicide attempt or "making preparatory actions towards imminent suicidal behavior," compared to children who had taken a nonmedicinal placebo.

The FDA hasn't publicly disclosed either report, and doesn't plan to discuss the data until a scheduled meeting in September, the Post reported.

Nine months ago, British authorities first warned doctors not to prescribe SSRIs to people under age 18, noting a tendency among young users to contemplate or commit suicide. Critics of the FDA in Congress and elsewhere allege that the agency is moving too slowly in its investigations, and is keeping important information from the public.

Since the British announcement, the FDA has changed its requirements on SSRI labeling, warning that doctors should closely monitor young users -- particularly when they begin treatment or change doses.

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Most Seniors Turn Thumbs Down on New Drug Law

Nearly twice as many seniors have an unfavorable opinion of the new Medicare prescription drug law as those who support it, a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds.

Forty-seven percent of those polled said they had an unfavorable impression of the law, compared with 26 percent who had a favorable view. And while two-thirds of the Medicare participants surveyed said federal lawmakers should do all they could to fix the law, only 10 percent favored its repeal, the poll found.

Among the most frequent criticisms is that the law doesn't do enough to help seniors afford the spiraling costs of prescription drugs, according to a statement released by the Kaiser foundation and its survey co-sponsor, the Harvard School of Public Health. Those surveyed also complained that the law is too complicated and rewards drug companies and health insurers.

Just three of 10 people polled felt they personally would benefit from the law, which was passed by Congress last December. About 80 percent of those surveyed favored allowing Americans to import less expensive prescription drugs from Canada.

The phone survey of 1,223 Medicare participants was conducted between June 16 and July 21. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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Iraq Vets Suffer Stress Disorders Akin to Those of Vietnam

Soldiers returning from service in Iraq have rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) akin to those who served in the Vietnam War, a new military survey finds.

About 17.4 percent of the 1,300 North Carolina paratroopers surveyed upon their return from Iraq suffered symptoms of posttraumatic stress, including nightmares, extreme anxiety, and inappropriate anger, according to an Associated Press account.

A national survey of Vietnam veterans in 1988 determined that about 15 percent had PTSD at the time, the AP reported. In all, 30 percent of the Vietnam vets polled had had PTSD at some point since returning home.

The new survey included voluntary answers from 1,300 members of the 82nd Airborne Division 2nd Brigade based in Fayetteville, N.C. They were part of the original invasion force and had spent more than a year in Iraq, the AP reported.

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