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Health Highlights: Jan. 12, 2005

Teflon Chemical Poses Health Threat: EPA Web Site Lists Dangerous Prescription Drugs, Group Says Worldwide Polio Cases Increased in 2004 New England States Report Flu Shot Surplus Florida Governor Proposes Medicaid Overhaul Maker of Oreos, Kool-Aid to Limit Ads Aimed at Kids

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

Teflon Chemical Poses Health Threat: EPA

Low levels of perfluorooctanoic acid -- a chemical used to make Teflon -- pose "a potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects" to people across the United States, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released Wednesday.

The draft assessment, based on animal studies, outlined the potential risks of perfluorooctanoic acid (known as PFOA or C-8) and its salts. It said that PFOA can cause cancer in rats but the cancer threat to humans is less clear, the Associated Press reported.

PFOA is used to make Teflon but isn't present in Teflon itself. Teflon is applied to many products, including cookware, flooring, car parts, and clothing.

The EPA assessment said PFOA targets the liver and could also raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels in humans. The chemical is present in the breast milk of rats, the assessment noted.

EPA officials stressed this was a preliminary assessment and, while the agency "has concerns with respect to the potential nationwide presence of PFOA in blood and with the potential for developmental and other effects suggested by animals studies, there are significant uncertainties in the agency's quantitative assessment of the risks of PFOA."

The EPA is playing down the potential human cancer and heart disease hazards posed by PFOA, said Lauren Sucher of the Environmental Working Group. "There is a more serious risk, we believe, than what the EPA is discussing," Sucher told the AP.

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Web Site Lists Dangerous Prescription Drugs, Group Says

The U.S. consumer advocacy group Public Citizen launched on Wednesday a revamped online database that lists what the group calls dangerous prescription drugs and offers alternatives.

WorstPills.org offers consumers information about 538 prescription drugs and has warnings about 181 drugs considered unsafe or ineffective, according to the group. A year's subscription costs $15.

The searchable database also includes information about drug pricing, 10 rules for safer drug use, and monthly issues of Public Citizen's Worst Pills, Best Pills newsletter. Users can also subscribe to e-mail alerts about newly discovered drug dangers, the group said.

"As recent events have shown, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which receives well over $100 million a year in funding from the drug industry largely to review drugs more rapidly, doesn't do a good job of protecting people from medications that can seriously harm or kill them," Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said in a prepared statement.

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Worldwide Polio Cases Increased in 2004

Worldwide polio cases increased by nearly a third last year, rising to 1,185 from 784 in 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported Wednesday.

A polio vaccine boycott in Nigeria was the main reason for the increase in cases of the crippling disease, the Associated Press reported. Nigeria reported 763 polio cases that year, compared with 355 in 2003.

The 11-month Nigerian vaccine boycott sparked a resurgence of polio in that country and in other parts of Africa as the disease infected children in countries that had been free of polio.

The boycott was led by hard-line Islamic clerics in northern Nigeria. They claimed the polio vaccination program was a U.S.-led attempt to infect Nigerian Muslims with HIV or to make them infertile.

The boycott ended in July 2004.

"It's slowed efforts for sure. It's going to take months to deal with the effects," Sona Bari, a spokeswoman for WHO's Polio Eradication Initiative, told the AP.

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New England States Report Flu Shot Surplus

Health departments in all six New England states have a total of more than 300,000 doses of flu vaccine still available, the Boston Globe reported. The unexpected surplus resulted from widespread cancellation of flu shot clinics during the height of the nationwide shortage in November and December, and aggressive efforts by federal and state officials to acquire more vaccine.

Last week, California relaxed its restrictions on the shots, saying it had some 600,00 vaccines for adults and children in hand.

The nationwide shortages were caused in October when the British government abruptly closed a major U.S. vaccine supplier due to bacterial contamination problems at a plant in Liverpool.

Health officials in areas where there's now plenty of vaccine are saying it's not too late to get a shot, noting that flu cases typically peak in mid-winter. Flu vaccine starts providing some protection as soon as it's administered and full coverage within two weeks, the Globe said.

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Florida Governor Proposes Medicaid Overhaul

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the state's Medicaid program for poor and disabled people that would require participants to get medical coverage through private health networks, the state's Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported Wednesday.

Some 2 million of the state's Medicaid participants would convert to cost-conscious, for-profit insurers and health maintenance organizations. Bush, brother of U.S. President George W. Bush, offered no cost-savings estimates if the program were implemented, the newspaper said.

Bush said he hoped for federal and state approval for his plan as early as this spring. He said the proposal would put more emphasis on "patient well-being" and less on "government control" for the state's $14 billion Medicaid program.

Critics of the proposal, including House Leader Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale) and state Sen. Walter Campbell (D-Broward County), predicted the private networks would be under considerable pressure to cut off patients whose medical expenses rose too high, the Sun-Sentinel said. They said the proposal would result in a voucher-style health care program that would cause confusion among millions of low-income individuals and senior citizens.

Currently, state Medicaid participants can seek any health care coverage deemed necessary, including doctor visits, hospital stays, and prescription drugs, the newspaper said. They can choose from tens of thousands of health care providers, who are then reimbursed by the government, the story said.

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Maker of Oreos, Kool-Aid to Limit Ads Aimed at Kids

Amid growing concern over childhood obesity and unhealthy eating, Kraft Foods says it will curb some snack-food advertising targeted at children under age 12, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Kraft, maker of Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Kool-Aid, and Oscar Mayer deli meats, said it will curb -- but not eliminate -- television and print ads aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds. The company said it doesn't target children under age 6, the newspaper reported.

Advertisements intended for children 12 and older won't be affected, the Post said.

The changes affect products that amount to some 10 percent of more than $30 billion in annual revenue for Kraft, the largest food company in the United States. Company officials wouldn't tell the newspaper what the firm's annual advertising budget is.

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