Health Highlights: Nov. 26, 2003

Flu Kills 4 Children in Colorado Stephen King Hospitalized for Pneumonia Experts: Medicare Drug Costs Will Rise Raw Produce Should Be OK, But Take Precautions New Prostate Drug Approved for Severe Cases

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

Flu Kills 4 Children in Colorado

The worst influenza outbreak in years has hit Colorado, where the virus has caused 3,399 confirmed cases and four deaths in children and has prompted health officials to call for more people to get flu shots.

The Rocky Mountain News reports that in the worst previous flu season in recent years, 3,557 cases were reported from November 2001 to May 2002. The state Department of Public Health and Environment reports 750 new infections on Monday and Tuesday alone, according to the paper.

In the last week, flu has claimed the lives of 2-year-old and 21-month-old children who had had no other medical problems. It has also killed 8-year-old and 15-year-old children who did have medical complications, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

"If possible, get your kids immunized," the paper quotes the state's chief medical officer, Dr. Ned Calonge, as saying. Officials stress the shot even though this year's batch isn't a perfect match for the current flu strain.

Colorado also suffered the most from this year's West Nile virus, accounting for nearly 2,500 of the 8,500 or so reported cases and 45 of the 199 deaths.

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Stephen King Hospitalized for Pneumonia

Just days after accepting the prestigious National Book Award for the body of his work, author Stephen King was hospitalized in Maine for pneumonia.

The disease was diagnosed in his right just before his trip to New York to accept the award on Nov. 19, his spokesman, Warren Silver, says in a statement. But his condition got worse upon his return to Maine, spreading to the other lung.

The author of the best-sellers Carrie, Salem's Lot, and The Shining additionally suffered from pleural effusion, a condition that forced doctors to drain fluid from his right lung on Tuesday, Silver says.

King, 56, is expected to remain in the hospital over Thanksgiving and several days beyond. "He is conscious and in good spirits, and happy to be able to breathe deeply again," the statement says. "He is expected to achieve a full recovery, has requested no visitors aside from family, and no flowers."

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Experts: Medicare Drug Costs Will Rise

Medicare premiums and deductibles are projected to rise each year for the prescription drugs seniors buy under the Medicare law President Bush is about to sign, according to experts cited by the Associated Press.

For instance, the $250 deductible that's slated to take effect when the program begins in 2006 is expected to rise to $445 by 2013, the wire service reports. And the initial gap in coverage between total drug costs and reimbursement from Medicare is expected to jump 10 percent in just the first year, according to Congressional Budget Office projections cited by the AP.

Critics of the legislation, which won final Congressional approval Tuesday, say lawmakers touted the 2006 numbers in seeking public support for the bill, but made little mention of what would happen in subsequent years.

"I think these numbers will come as a shock to consumers and they are pretty optimistic projections based on what drug costs are going to do," said Gail Shearer, a health policy analyst at Consumers Union.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin tells the wire service that there's no guarantee that even the initial $35 monthly premium is safe. He says economic and other factors in place when the prescription plan begins in 2006 will ultimately determine that number.

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Raw Produce Should Be OK, But Take Precautions

The risk of consuming tainted raw produce is relatively small, and people shouldn't avoid all raw fruits and vegetables out of fear stemming from recent outbreaks of hepatitis A in the United States, experts say.

The best advice, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to take common sense precautions, including washing food before it's eaten.

American concerns over food safety have risen since several outbreaks of hepatitis A that have been attributed to raw scallions (green onions) grown in Mexico. The Mexican government has closed four suspect companies and is testing their products for contamination, the Associated Press reports.

Hepatitis A, a virus that attacks the liver, can be spread through unsanitary water used to wash or store produce.

All fruits and veggies should be washed before they're eaten in order to remove surface germs and prevent illness, the CDC says. Unfortunately, washing won't prevent a minority of contamination cases that involve foods grown in germ-laden soil or irrigated with tainted water, CDC experts tell the AP.

Nonetheless, experts tell the AP, the benefits of eating raw fruits and veggies far outweigh the potential risks. "If you're healthy and don't have any particular ailments that make you susceptible (to food-borne illness), there are probably more things you could spend your time worrying about, like the mortgage payment," said Jerry Gillespie, director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis.

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New Prostate Drug Approved for Severe Cases

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug for men with advanced prostate cancer who don't benefit from other treatments.

The Praecis Pharmaceuticals drug Plenaxis (abarelix) will be restricted to only 5 percent to 10 percent of prostate cancer patients -- those who can't tolerate other hormone therapies and who have refused surgical castration, the FDA says.

The restrictions have been imposed because Plenaxis users are at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction that could cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure. The agency says users should be monitored for at least 30 minutes after being injected with the drug.

Plenaxis is among a group of medicines called gonadotropin-releasing hormone antagonists that are designed to lower levels of the male hormone testosterone -- a key factor in most prostate cancer growth. In 12-week clinical trials involving 81 men, the drug relieved bone pain and helped ease urinary problems. Common side effects included hot flashes, sleep disturbances, pain and constipation.

As a condition of FDA approval, the drug's manufacturer has agreed not to sell it through retail pharmacies, but directly to doctors and hospitals.

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