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Health Highlights: Aug. 6, 2003

Driver Distraction Not Limited to Cell Phones Urban Hospitals Unprepared for Bioterrorism Spending on Drugs Rises Sharply U.S. Army Seeks Cause for Pneumonia Cases in Iraq Medicare to Propose Cancer-Drug Spending Cuts 100 Tons of Ground Beef May be Contaminated

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

Driver Distraction Not Limited to Cell Phones

Cell phones are often blamed for causing car crashes, but a new study finds that some decidedly low-tech distractions are competing for the attention of drivers.

Eating, reading, grooming, changing radio stations, dealing with children, looking out the window, or just plain talking were found to be equally or more distracting than cell phone usage, according to the study.

The study, from the University of North Carolina, aims to focus on the problem of driver distraction in general, which is suspected of causing 1.2 million accidents a year -- 30 percent of all police-reported crashes.

"Although recent research has focused on cell phones and other technologies, our work demonstrates that many distractions are neither new nor technological," Dr. Jane Stutts, director of the university's Highway Safety Research Center, said in a statement. "Rather, they are aspects of everyday driving that people are likely to seldom think about."

The researchers found that 30 percent of the drivers used cell phones, but 40 percent read or wrote (usually while at a stop light), 46 percent groomed themselves, 71 percent ate or drank, and 92 percent worked the radio controls.

In response to the study, the Governors Highway Safety Association urged states not to enact laws that single out cell phone usage. "Simply banning drivers from talking on a cell phone while driving sends a bad and potentially dangerous message," said Jim Champagne, vice chair of the group. The problem is that such laws don't address "other distracting behavior."

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Urban Hospitals Unprepared for Bioterrorism

Most urban hospitals have a plan to deal with a major bioterrorism attack, but they haven't held mock drills and don't have the equipment to handle such a disaster, according to a new report.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, reported Wednesday that almost all hospitals have had training programs but fewer than half conducted exercises simulating a response to an attack. And many of their plans omit key contacts, such as laboratories that would be crucial to a response, the GAO report says.

The report also found that most hospitals are physically unprepared to treat an influx of patients in the event of an attack. For example, if hospitals experienced a surge of patients suffering from anthrax or botulism, they would require ventilators. However, the report said, more than half the hospitals said they had fewer than six ventilators per 100 beds, and 9 percent had less than two per 100 beds.

The GAO found that larger hospitals were better equipped to handle an attack than smaller ones. The report also said that the American Hospital Association generally agreed with the findings.

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Spending on Drugs Rises Sharply

Americans spent a total of 42 percent more on prescription drugs in 2000 than they did only three years earlier, according to a new government report.

Expenses for prescribed medications for outpatients rose from $72.3 billion in 1997 to $103 billion in 2000, the Agency for Healthcare Quality said. In the same time period, such spending took a bigger bite of total medical expenses, rising from 13 percent to 16 percent.

Americans 65 and older saw their expenses rise about 35 percent, from $819 to $1,102. Their average out-of-pocket expense was about three times that of people under 65, the report said.

But people under 65 weren't spared, the report said: They still spent 40 percent more on prescription drugs in 2000 than they did in 1997.

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U.S. Army Seeks Cause for Pneumonia Cases in Iraq

A U.S. Army team of experts is in the Middle East trying to determine a cause for two deaths among some 100 cases of pneumonia that have stricken military personnel in Iraq since March.

Fifteen of the cases were so serious the soldiers had to be airlifted from the region while on respirators. The Pentagon says it has all but ruled out exposure to anthrax, smallpox and any other biological weapons, as well as Legionnaires' disease and SARS, the Associated Press reports.

There's also been no link found with so-called Gulf War Syndrome, a loosely grouped collection of illnesses that struck U.S. troops involved in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Two of the current cases have been attributed to streptococcal pneumonia, which is caused by a common bacterium. The rest of the illnesses remain a mystery, the AP reports.

There seems to be no connection between the cases, which are from widely scattered units. The most recent case was confirmed July 30, the wire service reports.

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Medicare to Propose Cancer-Drug Spending Cuts

Angered that the federally subsidized Medicare program is paying far more than market price for prescription cancer drugs, the Bush Administration will soon propose major funding cuts for such medicines, The New York Times reports.

The administration will propose the cuts within two weeks, Medicare administrator Thomas Scully told the newspaper. He said new data make it "abundantly clear" that Medicare is "significantly overpaying" for outpatient cancer medications.

An administration estimate suggests that due to the excess payments, cancer doctors made $700 million last year in "Medicare drug profits." While the program is supposed to pay 95 percent of the "average wholesale price" for its drugs, this price isn't defined by law and is often much higher than the going market price, the Times reports.

The administration will propose that Medicare be forbidden to pay more for drugs given to Medicare patients than private policyholders pay the same drug contractors "under comparable circumstances," the newspaper says.

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100 Tons of Ground Beef May be Contaminated

Ellison Farms is recalling almost 100 tons of frozen ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service says.

Affected packages bear the establishment code "EST. 8934" inside the USDA mark of inspection.  The products were produced between May 30 and June 11, 2003, and distributed at retail outlets nationwide. Some of the recalled products were also exported to Mexico.

Testing indicates that the products may be linked to two E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in Colorado, FSIS says in a statement.

E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration. The very young, seniors and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to foodborne illness.

For more information, contact Diane Hamersma, Ellison Farms' company customer service representative, at 1-800-582-5284.

The various brand names and types of meat being recalled are too numerous too list here. Please visit the FSIS Web site for more information.

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