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Health Highlights: Sept. 9, 2004

U.S. Urged to Keep Gene Data on Pathogens Open Proposed Sale of Home Defibrillators Concerns Some Illicit Drug Use Down, but Prescription Use Up Health Care Premiums Rise 11.2% Women Near Ground Zero Had Smaller Babies New Human Death From Bird Flu Reported

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

U.S. Urged to Keep Gene Data on Pathogens Open

A panel of experts is urging the U.S. not to change policies that allow unrestricted access to genomic data on pathogens like smallpox and anthrax, saying that the benefits far outweigh the risk that terrorists may use the information to create bioweapons.

The National Academy of Science's National Research Council concluded Thursday that security against bioterrorism would be better served by policies that ease, not restrict, the free flow of information.

"Open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm," Stanley Falkow, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, said in a statement. "The current vitality of the life sciences depends on a free flow of data and ideas, which is necessary if science is to deliver new biodefense capabilities and improve our ability to fight infectious disease."

The genomic sequences of at least 100 microbial pathogens -- including anthrax, smallpox, and Ebola fever -- are available on the Internet, and many more are expected in the next few years, the report said. The U.S. government now requires that genomic data produced by federally funded research be made public.

The expert advisors said the open access served science well during the 2003 SARS epidemic. Its genome was sequenced in only six weeks, allowing scientists to quickly develop diagnostic tests and work on vaccines.

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Proposed Sale of Home Defibrillators Concerns Some

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is moving to approve over-the-counter sales of heart-saving devices called automated external defibrillators, but some say that such a move will prompt scare-tactic sales pitches.

The Washington Post notes that defibrillators can stop sudden cardiac arrest when used in time. However, it's less clear how many Americans are at risk, and whether it would be worthwhile to have them in the home.

"We're going to see, I will predict, ad campaigns that are likely to be more frightening than they are realistic," Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Post. "You really can manipulate this into getting people to believe they need one."

"It's dramatic, sensational -- it's very slick," added Dr. Arthur Kellerman, chair of emergency medicine at Emory University. "What the FDA's been asked to do is authorize the sale of very expensive lottery tickets."

Philips Medical Systems is seeking FDA approval to sell its HeartStart machine without a prescription. The company said if it gets the nod, it does not plan a huge media rollout, the newspaper reported. Rather, it will advertise through infomercials and on health Web sites.

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Illicit Drug Use Down, but Prescription Use Up

Fewer young people are using illicit drugs like marijuana and ecstasy, but more are using prescription drugs, a new U.S. government survey finds.

According to the survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), marijuana use fell 5 percent among kids between 12 and 17 years old. The drop was especially significant -- nearly 30 percent -- among 12- and 13-year-olds.

Meanwhile, the agency's National Survey on Drug Use found a sharp decline in the use of ecstasy and LSD in the 12-to-17 age group -- 41 percent and 54 percent in the last year, respectively.

"It is encouraging news that more American youths are getting the message that drugs are dangerous, including marijuana," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who oversees SAMHSA, said in a statement.

But "against the backdrop of generally good news," the agency added, young people are using more prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons. The survey found a 5 percent increase in the population 12 and older, and 15 percent in adults 18 to 25 years of age.

According to the survey, 19.5 million Americans ages 12 and older use illicit drugs. It also reported that 21.6 million Americans 12 and over -- or 9.1 percent -- were dependent on alcohol or drugs or both, yet 20 million didn't receive treatment.

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Health Care Premiums Rise 11.2%

Premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance in the United States are rising five times faster than workers' earnings, a survey released Thursday shows.

Premiums increased 11.2 percent, on average, in 2004, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust (HRET), sponsors of the annual employer health benefits survey.

While not as high as last year's 13.9 percent increase, this year's increase is still five times the rate of inflation and five times the rate of growth in workers' earnings, HealthDay reported. It also marks the fourth year of double-digit premium inflation, according to the survey.

"There's no question that higher health-care costs and cost-shifting onto workers is a significant factor in the rising number of uninsured workers," Christine L. Owens, director of public policy with the AFL-CIO, said during a press briefing in Washington, D.C., Thursday morning.

As health-care costs surge, workers are shouldering a mounting share of the financial burden, particularly for family coverage, the survey showed. The annual premium for a plan covering a family of four averaged $9,950, or $829 a month, in 2004. Workers contributed $2,661 -- or 10 percent more than they spent the prior year.

Since 2001, employees' share of health insurance costs has soared 57 percent for single coverage and 49 percent for family coverage, the survey reported.

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Women Near Ground Zero Had Smaller Babies

Babies born to pregnant women living near the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were generally smaller and delivered earlier than mothers who lived elsewhere in New York, according to a Los Angeles Times account of a new study.

On average, babies whose mothers lived near ground zero weighed 5.3 ounces less and measured about a third of an inch shorter, the newspaper reported. Researchers from New York's Columbia University and Beth Israel Medical Center studied 300 pregnant women who wound up giving birth at three hospitals in lower Manhattan.

The same women delivered their babies an average of 3.6 days earlier than pregnant women who weren't near ground zero. These babies also had smaller heads.

Experts theorized that these newborns were exposed to toxic dust and fumes that spewed from the site, and were affected by their mothers' psychological stress, the Times said.

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New Human Death From Bird Flu Reported

A Thai man who raised fighting roosters has died of bird flu, the first human death from the disease since it re-emerged in July among fowl in Asia.

A Thai health ministry official confirmed the 18-year-old man's death, which represented the 28th human fatality caused by the lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu this year, according to Agence France Presse.

Four months ago, Asian nations declared bird flu outbreaks contained after the deaths of at least 24 people and millions of birds from the disease and by slaughter.

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