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Health Highlights: Jan. 2, 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 Rhode Island Approves Drug Imports From Canada

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

Tsunami Death Toll Tops 140,000

Rescue workers began delivering aid to the victims of last week's devastating tsunami and earthquake that left an estimated 140,000 people dead in 12 nations, and perhaps three times as many people seriously injured, The New York Times reported Sunday.

In addition, United Nations officials said 5 million people in the Indian Ocean rim countries lack clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine. And an estimated five million people are homeless.

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. In a month or so, outbreaks are likely from food- or water-carried ailments, like salmonella and hepatitis.

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

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

More than $2 billion in promised international aid began to reach survivors on Saturday. The U.S. military was launching its largest operation in southern Asian since the Vietnam War, the AP reported. Troops were bringing supplies from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed off Sumatra, which was closest to the epicenter of the quake and the first place battered by walls of water. An estimated 80,000 people were killed on the island.

The World Health Organization, which is helping to lead rescue efforts, is seeking $40 million in donations. For more information, visit its Web site at www.who.int/en.

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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.

One of Giese's physicians, Dr. Rodney Willoughby, said the girl's treatment must be duplicated in another person before it can be judged a valid treatment for rabies.

"I don't recommend you do stuff before you try them on animals but in this case we didn't have time," he said. "This was stitched together in four hours, discussed in an hour. It just turned out we were very lucky. Jeanna was very lucky."

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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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Rhode Island Approves Drug Imports From Canada

The Rhode Island Health Department has signed off on regulations that would allow the state to license Canadian pharmacies. The move, the first by a state, is designed to make prescription drugs more affordable to residents, especially senior citizens.

The regulations, which were filed Thursday, will take effect in 20 days, allowing Rhode Islanders to import through the mail or by private shipper prescription medications from Canada by the end of January, the Associated Press reported.

Prescription drugs from Canada are cheaper than those in the United States due to price controls. The Bush administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oppose importing prescription drugs from other countries, saying it is impossible to guarantee the drugs' safety.

A growing number of states and municipalities are openly defying the federal government. Minnesota, the first state to facilitate cross-boarder drug imports, launched a Web site last January providing residents with information on how to buy drugs from Canada. Since then, North Dakota and New Hampshire have joined the fray, while nearly a dozen other states have proposed import programs.

The agency has not stopped these efforts so far.

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