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Health Highlights: May 27, 2005

Chemical in Plastics May Impair Male Sex Development Low Response Found in Medicare Drug-Coverage Test FDA Approves Kidney Disease Drug Risks of Weight-Loss Surgery Can Impede Treatment CDC Urges Meningitis Vaccine for Teens, College Freshmen

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

Chemical in Plastics May Impair Male Sex Development

Chemicals called phthalates commonly used in vinyl and other plastic products may interfere with the normal development of baby boys' genitalia, University of Rochester scientists concluded from new research.

The chemicals are also found in some perfumes, soaps, makeup, paints, and pill coatings, according to a report in Friday's San Francisco Chronicle. Twenty-one percent of sons whose mothers' urine contained significant levels of phthalates had complications, including incomplete testicular descent and a smaller penis, versus 8 percent of other boys, the newspaper said.

The European Union has banned the chemicals and the California legislature is debating a measure, opposed by the chemical industry, to do the same, the newspaper said.

The researchers, noting that their study involved a relatively small sample of 134 babies aged 3 months to 24 months, recommended more research involving a larger pool of participants.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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Low Response Found in Medicare Drug-Coverage Test

If an initial test run of next year's Medicare drug coverage launch is any indication, only 40 percent of low-income people eligible will sign up for the plan, the Associated Press reported.

The government's recent test mailing of applications to 2,050 Medicare recipients was meant to gauge whether people could successfully complete and return the application. Only two in five did so, and that was only after the government called the recipients on the phone, the wire service said.

A spokesman for the agency that oversaw the mailing, the U.S. Social Security Administration, said about 25 percent who didn't return the application believed their income exceeded the limit. Another 25 percent said they already had prescription drug coverage, and the remainder either didn't remember getting the application or lost it, the spokesman said.

The benefit is valued at about $2,300 per year per recipient, the wire service said.

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FDA Approves Kidney Disease Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug to treat a common complication of chronic kidney disease.

Secondary hyperparathyroidism (SHPT) occurs when the kidneys can no longer regulate vitamin D levels. This can cause damage to the bones, heart, muscles, and nerves if left untreated.

Abbott Laboratories said Friday that its Zemplar (paricalcitol) capsules were approved to prevent and treat SHPT. An injected form of the drug was approved in 1998.

The company cited National Kidney Foundation estimates that 20 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and as many as 8 million may be candidates for the new treatment.

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Risks of Weight-Loss Surgery Can Impede Treatment

The risks of weight-loss procedures collectively known as bariatric surgery are leading some insurers to cut back on coverage for the operations, making it difficult for some obese patients to obtain the treatments, The New York Times reported Friday.

Well-publicized success stories among celebrities and the not-so-famous may have spurred more than 145,000 obese Americans to have the procedures last year, at an average cost of $25,000 each, the newspaper said, citing the American Society for Bariatric Surgery.

But one in 20 patients experiences serious complications, including heart attack and stroke. A recent study found that the death rate for the most common type of bariatric surgery -- gastric bypass -- was one in 200, the newspaper said. That's a higher death rate than for people who have a procedure to open clogged arteries known as coronary angioplasty, the Times said.

For thousands of Americans, these weight-loss procedures have reversed debilitating conditions and led to a much improved quality of life. But with malpractice premiums soaring, some surgeons have stopped performing the operations, and some insurers have stopped covering them, the newspaper said. This is making it difficult for some patients to obtain the surgery.

Some 5 million Americans classified as obese may be candidates for the procedures, the Times said.

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CDC Urges Meningitis Vaccine for Teens, College Freshmen

Children 11 to 12 years old, unvaccinated teens entering high school, and college freshmen living in dormitories are among those at highest risk of deadly bacterial meningitis and should be routinely inoculated, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in new guidelines issued Thursday.

Meningitis is an infection of the spinal cord fluid and the fluid that surrounds the brain. A bacterial form, medically referred to as meningococcal disease, infects up to 3,000 Americans every year, killing about 10 percent of its victims. Another 15 percent suffer long-term effects including hearing loss, limb amputation, and brain damage, the agency said.

The illness -- which peaks in people ages 16 to 18 -- is commonly spread among those sharing close quarters, like a college dorm. Symptoms including fever, headache, stiff neck, and fatigue may be misdiagnosed as flu. But the disease tends to progress rapidly and can kill within hours, the CDC said.

Sanofi Pasteur's new vaccine called MCV4 is a single shot that lasts longer than older vaccinations, the agency said. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January. The CDC said it hoped to recommend the vaccine to all children and young adults older than age 11 within three years as sufficient supplies become available.

The CDC guidelines were quickly endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and the National Meningitis Association.

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