Health Highlights: Nov. 16, 2003

Tentative Deal on Medicare Drug Bill Reached Hepatitis A Outbreak in Pa. Triggers Scallion Warning Asthma Drugs Recalled in Canada: FDA 85,000 Mini Bikes and Scooters Recalled

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

Tentative Deal on Medicare Drug Bill Reached

In what would be the biggest expansion of Medicare since the program was created in 1965, top Republicans in Congress and two Democratic senators announced Saturday they had reached an "agreement in principle" on a bill to help millions of elderly people buy prescription drugs.

President Bush on Sunday enthusiastically endorsed the breakthrough, which appears to have ended the months of negotiations on the issue. "I will be actively pushing the bill" in the coming days to ensure passage," he said on his return from a Camp David weekend.

"I urge the members of the House and Senate to take a look it, vote it, get it to my desk as soon as possible," he added.

The agreement still requires approval of House and Senate negotiators and then votes in the full House and Senate. The deal includes a proposal to have traditional Medicare compete directly with new private insurance plans and a plan to encourage employers to maintain drug coverage for retirees, officials told the Associated Press.

Under the proposal, the new Medicare drug benefits would start in 2006, The New York Times reports. Medicare recipients would have to pay premiums for prescription drugs averaging $35 a month along with a $275 deductible. The beneficiary would pay 25 percent of drug costs from $276 to $2,200 a year. Medicare would pay the other 75 percent. The program would then pay nothing until the beneficiary had spent a total of $3,600 out of pocket, a gap in coverage known as a doughnut hole.

House and Senate negotiators said they reached agreement Saturday on the most contentious issue in the bill, an experiment that would require direct competition between private health plans and the traditional government-run Medicare program. The secretary of health and human services would select up to six metropolitan areas to participate in the experiment, the Times reports.


Hepatitis A Outbreak in Pa. Triggers Scallion Warning

The hepatitis A outbreak in the Pittsburgh area that has killed three people and sickened more than 500 people has prompted a U.S. government warning on scallions.

The Food and Drug Administration issued this advisory over the weekend: "Hepatitis A outbreaks associated with raw or lightly cooked green onions served in restaurants occurred in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia in September. Another outbreak of hepatitis A among patrons of a single restaurant has occurred in Pennsylvania during late October and early November, although the source of the outbreak has not yet been determined."

The Pennsylvania outbreak, which started early this month, has been traced to a Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant in the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports .

As of Saturday, 510 cases of hepatitis A had been confirmed in the outbreak, Pennsylvania Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey told the Associated Press. He said more infections are expected because people who contract hepatitis A typically do not exhibit its early flu-like symptoms for 28 to 30 days.

The state started offering antibody inoculations Nov. 5, shortly after the first cases were diagnosed, to anyone who ate at the restaurant after Oct. 22. The antibody greatly reduces the risk of hepatitis A developing, but it must be given within two weeks of exposure. About 8,500 people have received the shots so far, health officials say.

The FDA advised consumers concerned about the possibility of getting hepatitis A from green onions , or scallions, to thoroughly cook them by boiling or sauting, or use them only in foods that will be cooked, such as casseroles. Also check food purchased at restaurants and delicatessens and ask whether menu items contain raw or lightly cooked green onions.

Hepatitis A is a virus that attacks the liver, causing flu-like symptoms including fever, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain, and jaundice. It usually clears up in about two months.


FDA Warns of Asthma Drug Recalls in Canada

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is alerting U.S. residents that some GlaxoSmithKline "Diskus" medicines sold in Canada to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have been recalled.

The agency says three asthma products - Ventolin Diskus, Flovent Diskus, and Serevent Diskus -- were recalled in Canada Nov. 12 "because the products drug delivery system may not function properly and may deliver too little of the drug - or none at all." The agency adds that the FDA-approved Diskus products (Advair and Serevent) sold in the United States are not subject to the recall.

The announcement of the Canadian recall, the FDA says, is "because some U.S. residents have obtained prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere through on-line or storefront operations . . . [and] may have received these potentially substandard and ineffective products."

Canadian patients are being advised to return the affected product to the pharmacy or physicians office where it was obtained in order to get a replacement. U.S. patients who may have obtained these affected medications from Canada should discuss them with their physician, pharmacist or health care provider, the FDA says.

The affected lots in the Canadian recall are available on the Canadian website of GlaxoSmithKline.


85,000 Mini Bikes and Scooters Recalled

Fisher-Price is recalling 55,000 electric mini bikes and 30,000 electric scooters with motors that could malfunction, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

Users are at risk of injury if the motor control circuits don't operate properly and the engines continue to run after the power is cut or the throttle button is released. Fisher-Price says it has 80 reports of malfunctioning motors, causing injuries including a chipped tooth and a broken arm.

The Lightning PAC Scooters (model 73530) and MX3 Mini Bikes (models 73535 and B2222) are designed for children ages 6 and older. Model numbers on the products, made in China, are found in the battery compartment.

Toy stores and other retailers nationwide sold the scooters between November 2001 and October 2003 for about $250. The mini bikes were sold between May 2003 and September 2003 for about $200.

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