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Health Highlights: Jan. 11, 2005

U.S. to Review Cattle Import Renewal After 3rd Mad Cow Case Drug Companies Unveil Discount Drug Card Experts: Keep Kids Away From Cell Phones Report Fans Debate Over Rocket Fuel Contamination U.S. Health Spending Hits Another Record Listerine Maker Swallows $2 Million to Reverse Label Claims

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

U.S. to Review Cattle Import Renewal After 3rd Mad Cow Case

The United States is reviewing its plan to renew cattle imports from Canada after that country announced its third confirmed case of mad cow disease Tuesday.

Bloomberg news reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will send a technical team to Canada to evaluate the circumstances surrounding Canada's recent mad cow cases. The border was closed to live cattle and beef shipments from Canada in May 2003 after the first confirmed case and it was scheduled to reopen in early March.

The third case, and the second this month, was found in an Alberta beef cow that was born after the country's 1997 ban on feeding cattle remains to other cattle, CBC News Online reported.

No part of this third animal entered the human food or animal feed systems, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

This latest case raises questions about the cattle feed supply in Canada and whether feed regulations are being followed, CBC News reported. It's believed that mad cow disease spreads when cows eat feed made with the remains of infected cows.

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Drug Companies Unveil Discount Drug Card

A new prescription drug discount card for uninsured Americans was announced Tuesday by 10 large drug companies.

The Together Rx Access Card offers discounts of 25 percent to 40 percent on more than 275 brand name prescription drugs and numerous generic drugs. The program will be offered to people who meet certain income and age requirements, the Associated Press reported.

To qualify for a card, a person must be younger than 65 years old, be ineligible for Medicare, and have no other public or private drug coverage. There's a $30,000 income limit for single people, $40,000 for couples, and $60,000 for a family of four.

Roba Whitely, executive director of Together Rx Access, estimated that the program could be available to 80 percent of the 45 million Americans who are uninsured and don't have prescription drug coverage.

"It's a positive step but at the same time it strongly underscores the need for governmental action to expand coverage for the uninsured," Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumer group FamiliesUSA, told the AP.

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Experts: Keep Kids Away From Cell Phones

Parents shouldn't give cell phones to children under age 8, Britain's National Radiological Protection Board says, citing the possibility of long-term health damage from radiation exposure.

Although no scientific link between low-level radiation from phones and cancer has been established, the NRPB said any risk from cell phone use would be magnified in children, the Times of London reported Tuesday.

A similar finding and recommendation stemmed from a report completed in 2000. Known as the Stewart Report, it urged adults to keep conversations short and discouraged children from using the phones habitually.

The new report's central finding is that cell phone technology is outpacing research into the phones' safety. Some European studies have linked cell phone use with certain types of inner-ear tumors.

In Britain, about 25 percent of grade school children are thought to have cell phones, a number that jumps to 90 percent among 11- to 16-year-olds, the Times reported.

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Report Fans Debate Over Rocket Fuel Contamination

In an eagerly awaited report on rocket fuel contamination of U.S. water and food supplies, the National Academy of Sciences suggests that higher-than-expected levels of the toxic chemical may be safe, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The academy's recommendation on safe levels of perchlorate are 20 times those under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the newspaper reported. The finding could mean that the U.S. Defense Department and its contractors could be relieved of hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs, the Times said.

Just how much rocket fuel contamination is safe has been under review for years. The EPA and the states of California and Massachusetts have made an initial determination of a one-part-per-billion maximum. The National Academy's report avoided a direct recommendation of a specific limit, but state regulators and environmental groups told the newspaper that the academy's report would translate to a 20-parts-per-billion maximum.

Pentagon scientists, using the same human studies that the academy's report was based on, have concluded a maximum safe level of 200 parts per billion, the newspaper said.

Groundwater across the country has been found to contain trace levels of the contaminant, including sources as diverse as the Colorado River and reservoirs that feed New England's Cape Cod, the Times reported.

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U.S. Health Spending Hits Another Record

Although growth in U.S. health-care spending slowed slightly in 2003, the nation's health bill still hit a new record of $1.7 trillion, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in a new report.

Total health spending rose 7.7 percent in 2003, compared with a 9.3 percent rise in 2002, The New York Times reported. The total bill topped 15 percent of the nation's entire gross domestic product for the first time.

Retails sales of prescription drugs grew 10.7 percent to $179.2 billion in 2003. Such medications accounted for 11 percent of total national health spending, but amounted to 23 percent of total out-of-pocket spending by consumers, the data showed.

By contrast, growth in the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs slowed in 2003 from the year before. Medicaid spending rose 7.1 percent to $267 billion in 2003, following a jump of 12.1 percent in 2002. Medicare's bill grew 5.7 percent to $283.1 billion in 2003, compared with a rise of 7.6 percent the prior year.

Health spending averaged $5,670 per person in 2003, up $353 from 2002, the report said.

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Listerine Maker Swallows $2 Million to Reverse Label Claims

The maker of Listerine mouthwash will spend $2 million to cover up millions of bottle labels already in stores that suggest the product is as effective as flossing in preventing plaque and gingivitis.

Pfizer Inc. said it will dispatch some 4,000 workers to place stickers over the claim on its bottles, and remove similar ads that hang on necks of bottles, the Associated Press reported.

The company moves follow last week's ruling by a New York-based federal judge, who ordered a halt to the "as-effective-as-floss" campaign on television and in print and medical journal ads.

A Johnson & Johnson subsidiary had sued Pfizer over the campaign, saying the Listerine ads posed an unfair threat to its dental floss sales.

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