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Health Highlights: Jan. 1, 2005

Tsunami Death Toll Tops 140,000 Teen Who Survived Rabies Leaves Hospital Rule Seeks to Broaden Health Coverage for Workers Multiple SIDS Deaths Not Foul Play, Study Finds FDA Approves Drug for Nerve Pain Due to Diabetes FDA OKs Leukemia Drug for Kids

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

Tsunami Death Toll Tops 140,000

The death toll from Sunday's catastrophic tsunami and earthquake topped 140,000 in 12 nations Saturday, and international health officials estimated that three times as many people may be seriously injured.

In addition, United Nations officials say 5 million people lacked clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine.

As the scope of one of the worst natural disasters in history widened, health officials remain worried about survivors' risk of diseases spread by contaminated wells and reservoirs, human sewage, rotting animals, and overcrowding.

The most immediate threats probably stem from a range of diarrheal diseases like cholera and dysentery, especially where pure water fails to reach survivors quickly, the Associated Press reported. Other big worries include respiratory diseases, like measles and pneumonia, which could occur within about a week of the disaster. In a month or so, outbreaks are likely from food- or water-carried ailments, like salmonella and hepatitis.

Health experts say clean water -- along with water-purifying tablets and equipment -- are urgent priorities in the massive global relief effort that is now underway.

Several health specialists also appealed for more attention to mental health counseling, which tends to be overlooked in undeveloped areas.

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Teen Who Survived Rabies Leaves Hospital

A Wisconsin teenager who is the first person known to survive rabies without a vaccination returned to her home Saturday, after nearly 11 weeks in the hospital, officials said.

Jeanna Giese, 15, was infected when she was bitten by a bat on Sept. 12. She began showing symptoms of rabies Oct. 13 and was hospitalized two days later, according to the Associated Press.

Physicians at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin used an experimental treatment that induced a coma as part of measures taken to combat the usually fatal infection, the AP said.

Giese has regained much of her weight, strength and coordination, but she still needs additional physical and occupational therapy, the news agency said.

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Rule Seeks to Broaden Health Coverage for Workers

A new rule issued by the Bush administration in the waning hours of 2004 may provide better access to group health insurance for American workers who change or lose their jobs, the Associated Press reported.

The rule limits when pre-existing medical conditions can be excluded from coverage and requires group health plans and group health insurance issuers to offer "special enrollment" in certain cases. It takes effect July 1, and is intended to broaden the scope of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act by making it easier to obtain group health coverage, the AP said.

The law, championed by former President Clinton, was designed to guarantee access to health insurance for small businesses with 50 or fewer employees, and to require that insurers renew coverage for a person or group regardless of the health of any group member, the news service said.

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Multiple SIDS Deaths Not Foul Play, Study Finds

Mysterious deaths of more than one newborn in the same family are more likely to be the result of natural causes than infanticide, British researchers report.

In the most comprehensive attempt to examine the emotionally charged issue of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) , the researchers found that when more than one infant dies in the same family, the deaths are only rarely due to foul play, according to a Washington Post report.

The findings, published in the Jan. 1 issue of The Lancet, should help prevent families stricken by more than one baby's death from automatically being placed under a cloud of suspicion, the researchers said.

Suspicion was raised in recent years that some deaths blamed on SIDS may have been infanticide, after researchers found that some children who had been killed had their cause of death classified as SIDS. There have been a number of highly publicized cases in the United States and Britain of parents who killed their children and blamed the deaths on SIDS. As a result, medical examiners in both countries tend to assume that more than one death in a family is suspicious.

About 2,500 children die each year in the United States from SIDS, also known as crib death. The cause is unknown, though the number of deaths dropped in recent years because of a campaign to put babies to sleep on their backs.

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FDA Approves Drug for Nerve Pain Due to Diabetes

Pfizer Inc. said it has gained U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to sell its drug Lyrica for the treatment of nerve pain associated with diabetes and shingles, Bloomberg News reported.

The FDA in September delayed approving Lyrica until the drug company provided the agency with more information. The agency is continuing to review Lyrica as a possible treatment for seizures in adults, Pfizer said in a statement.

Diabetes can cause nerve damage over time, leading to numbness or pain in the hands, arms, feet and legs, according to the National Institutes of Health. Almost half of the 18 million Americans with diabetes will develop some form of nerve pain, the news service reported.

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FDA Approves Leukemia Drug for Kids

The first new leukemia treatment in more than a decade approved specifically for use in children has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.

Clolar, also known as clofarabine, was approved for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, whose cancer is getting worse in spite of at least two rounds of chemotherapy, according to an Associated Press report.

Clolar was granted accelerated approval this week based on a clinical trial involving 49 children, says Michael Vasconcelles, vice president of clinical research for Genzyme Corp., the drug's manufacturer. In the trial, 20 percent of children went into remission, and another 10 percent had a significant drop in the number of cancer cells in their bone marrow. Seven were healthy enough to have a bone marrow transplant, the only hope for a cure at that stage of the disease.

The FDA didn't approve the drug use in treating another cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia, because trial results weren't as positive, says Sharon Murphy, director of the Children's Cancer Research Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. She says additional studies are needed to confirm that Clolar really improves therapy.

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