Health Highlights: Nov. 22, 2003

House Passes Medicare Bill in Squeaker U.S. Confirms Scallions Caused Hepatitis Outbreak FDA Panel Backs Wrinkle Gels Study Doubts Nursing-Blood Pressure Link Group: Atkins Diet Damaging to Heart

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

House Passes Medicare Bill in Squeaker

The U.S. House of Representatives barely passed a Republican-sponsored Medicare and prescription drug bill early Saturday after some last-minute maneuvering and middle-of-the-night phone calls to wavering members.

The bill, which would mark the biggest changes in Medicare since the program was enacted in 1965, now moves to the U.S. Senate.

Democrats who oppose the bill held the vote lead through most of the night, CNN reports, but Republicans held off on making the final tally while President Bush and other GOP leaders made calls urging some members to change their minds.

The roll-call vote, which the Washington Post says was the longest in memory, lasted some three hours. Just before dawn, GOP leaders convinced two Republican congressmen, C.L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho and Trent Franks of Arizona, to vote "yes." A few other fence-sitters followed suit.

The final vote was 220 for, 215 against.

The bill, which would add a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program and expand the role of private insurers, has created deep divisions in Congress. Supporters call it a fundamental change that would help older Americans rein in their prescription drug costs, while opponents see it as a handout to insurers and drug companies that would ruin Medicare.

Under the bill, starting in 2006 all of the 40 million Americans under Medicare would get subsidized coverage for drugs if they join a private insurer that would provide the rest of their care, according to the Post account.

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U.S. Confirms Scallions Caused Hepatitis Outbreak

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday that green onions used in a mild salsa were responsible for the nation's largest outbreak of hepatitis A.

On Saturday, health officials declared that the worst was over. "We do feel like this particular outbreak has been successfully ended," the Associated Press quotes CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding as saying.

The outbreak has killed three and sickened 600 people who ate at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The Food and Drug Administration has announced that it is probing other hepatitis outbreaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Hepatitis A is a virus that attacks the liver

The scallions were imported from Mexico, and the FDA has ordered any shipments to be halted at the border.

The government is alerting consumers to use other types of onions. If you do have green onions, the FDA urges you to cook them thoroughly, as if in a casserole. If you are at a restaurant, the FDA advises to ask for a substitute onion.

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FDA Panel Backs Wrinkle Gels

An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration gave smooth sailing Friday to competing gels that would combat wrinkles.

The panel voted to recommend approval of Restylane by Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. and Hylaform by Inamed Corp., two gels that are already on the market in Europe and Mexico, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The newspaper reports that the gels could command sales of up to $150 million a year, and erode the popularity of collagen treatments.

The recommendation came with some restrictions, the Times reports. The panel said the gels were inadequately tested in people of color, and that post-marketing tests should be done on those patients. It also said the gels could be a problem for people who are allergic to eggs.

The FDA usually follows the recommendation of its panels.

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Study Doubts Nursing-Blood Pressure Link

A new study casts doubt on earlier claims that babies who are breast-fed have lower blood pressure for life.

The research, appearing in the Nov. 22 British Medical Journal, looked at 29 previous studies on the subject, and found some of them to be unreliable or premature, according to a BBC account.

The research team from St. George's Hospital in London found that in the earlier papers, the larger the study, the lesser the benefits were, according to the BBC.

"Our analysis suggests that any effect of breast-feeding on blood pressure is modest and of limited clinical or public health importance," the study says. "However, blood pressure is not the only relevant outcome -- the case for breast-feeding rests on a combination of long and short term benefits."

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Group: Atkins Diet Damaging to Heart

A doctors' group has announced what it calls the second heart-related death in a person on the Atkins diet, and is calling for a government investigation into the safety of that and other high-protein, low-carbohydrate weight loss plans.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states that a 41-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl died from sudden cardiac arrest while on the Atkins diet. The group wants the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look into adverse effects.

Atkins diet promoters said the group was being anything but responsible in making this announcement. Agence France-Presse reports that the Atkins center is outraged by the allegations, which the group said could not be definitively linked to the diet. It accused the group of exploiting the tragedy of a few to promote its "vegan" political agenda.

"The PCRM appears to be exploiting the obesity and diabetes crisis in this country to further its own vegan political and philosophical agenda, regardless of the scientific evidence," AFP quotes an Atkins statement.

The group has also said it has found other bad side effects to these diets. According to a survey that 188 people answered, the following were reported:

  • 44 percent reported constipation;
  • 42 percent had a loss of energy;
  • 40 percent reported bad breath;
  • and 22 percent had kidney problems, including reduced function and kidney stones.
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