Health Highlights: Nov. 25, 2003

Senate Passes Historic Medicare Reform FDA Ties 10 More Deaths to Drug-Coated Stent Toy Hazards Abound, Report Finds Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic Hits New Highs World Hunger on the Rise Again 'Morning After' Pill May Go Over the Counter

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

Senate Passes Historic Medicare Reform

The most sweeping changes to the 38-year-old Medicare program won final Congressional approval Tuesday morning as the U.S. Senate passed legislation that includes a prescription drug plan for seniors. The vote was 55-44.

The $395 billion measure now goes to President Bush, who is certain to sign it.

The drug plan does not begin until 2006, although starting next year, seniors will be able to buy a discount card that informed sources say will cut their drug bills by as much as 25 percent, the Associated Press reports.

"For the first time since 1965, Medicare has been expanded to provide important prescription drug coverage and financial relief for millions of older and disabled Americans and their families," AARP head Bill Novelli said in a statement. The AARP lobbied hard for the bill, much to the dismay of its critics and many of its members.

Opponents vowed to continue fighting. "This is not the final vote," the New York Times quotes Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as saying. "This is the beginning of the end; it is not the end. We will see many, many more votes."

The House of Representatives barely passed the Republican-sponsored drug bill early Saturday. The final House vote was 220 for, 215 against.

The bill, which will also 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.

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FDA Ties 10 More Deaths to Drug-Coated Stent

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced an additional 10 deaths in the last month from a revolutionary heart stent that releases antibiotics.

In October, the FDA said the stent, which was approved in April, was linked to 60 deaths and 290 reports of clotting. The updated figures bring the death total to at least 70 and the number of clots to at least 360.

The stent, made by Cordis Corp., a division of Johnson & Johnson, is coated with a thin polymer containing an antibiotic called siroliumus, which is slowly released into the patient to decrease inflammation and scarring and, thus, re-blockage of the artery.

Since the stents' approval, hundreds of thousands of patients have received them. The FDA continues to maintain that they are "a safe and effective product" when used correctly, but urges doctors to watch their patients carefully.

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Toy Hazards Abound, Report Finds

There's still far too much danger lurking on toy shelves in stores, according to a survey released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

The survey found that more than 212,000 people, including 72,000 children younger than age 5, went to U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2002 for toy-related injuries. Thirteen children died from toy-related injuries in 2002, the PIRG says.

The group's annual "Trouble in Toyland" report focused on four kinds of toy dangers: choking hazards; dangerously loud toys; strangulation hazards or dangerous projectiles; and toxic chemical hazards.

The report says that choking on balloons, small toy parts, and small balls are a leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. Manufacturers and stores continue to sell toys that have small parts but don't have the choke-hazard warning that's required by law. And balloons are often sold in unlabeled bins, even though regulation require that they be labeled as unsafe for children younger than 8.

Several toys on U.S. store shelves exceed 100 decibels of sound, the report says, even though toys should not produce a sound louder than 90 decibels when measured from a distance of 25 centimeters, and those that are held close to the ear should produce a sound no louder than 70 decibels.

In terms of toxic hazards, PIRG researchers found some small plastic bath toys made up of two-thirds phthalates by weight. They also found popular brands of polymer modeling clay with high concentrations of phthalates, which are industrial compounds that have toxic qualities.

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Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic Hits New Highs

The HIV/AIDS epidemic caused a record number of deaths and infections around the world this year, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.

The report by UNAIDS, the U.N. agency responsible for coordinating global efforts to fight the disease, said the epidemic killed more than 3 million people so far in 2003. And 5 million more acquired the human immunodeficiency virus in 2003, bringing the number of people living with HIV to between 34 million and 46 million, the Associated Press says.

The report, which indicates a failure of international efforts to control the spread of HIV/AIDS, called that the largest increase in new infections ever.

And it said the epidemic continues to rage in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 26.6 million people are living with HIV. "This is an epidemic that at the start was a white middle-class gay man's disease. Today, if you use a stereotype, the face of AIDS is a young woman from Africa," Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, told a news conference in London.

A new wave of the disease is threatening China, Indonesia, and Russia because of transmissions through drug use and unsafe sex, the UN agency adds.

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World Hunger on the Rise Again

The number of malnourished people around the globe is on the rise after a steady decline in the first half of the 1990s, says a new United Nations report.

There were 842 million chronically hungry people in the world in the year 2000, 800 million of whom were in developing countries, CBC News Online reports. Another 34 million live in former Soviet bloc countries and 10 million are in industrial countries, the U.N. says.

The figures make it appear highly unlikely that the U.N. will meet its goal of cutting by half the number of malnourished people by 2015.

Hunger increased in 26 countries including Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia, Guatemala, Liberia, Congo and Sierra Leone, the report says, noting also that about 25 million people die of hunger each year.

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'Morning After' Pill May Go Over the Counter

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering a plan to make the so-called "morning after" pill an over-the-counter medication that would not require a doctor's prescription, the Associated Press reports.

In order to prevent pregnancy, the pill should be taken within 24 hours but not more than 72 hours after sexual intercourse. Proponents say making it available over the counter would speed a woman's ability to acquire the drug following rape, contraceptive failure, or simply forgetting birth control.

In five states -- Washington, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and New Mexico -- women are already able buy the emergency contraceptive without a doctor's approval, the AP reports.

Critics of the medication, including the Vatican, oppose any medical interference with a fertilized egg. Proponents counter that making the drug more widely available could prevent as many as 1.7 million unplanned pregnancies a year, the AP reports.

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