NPR Health News Briefs; Dec. 26, 2004 — Jan. 1, 2005

Read a roundup of health news briefs from NPR for the week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1:

WHO: $40 Million Needed for Immediate Tsunami Aid

Dec. 31, 2004 — The World Health Organization says it will need $40 million to respond to the immediate needs created by the tsunami that devastated southern Asia this week.

The WHO estimates that the tsunami has left between 3 million and 5 million people in southern Asia without access to clean water, adequate shelter, food, proper sanitation or medical care.

David Nabarro, head of the WHO crisis team, says disease and poor living conditions could kill as many people as the tsunami's wall of water.

The WHO's current priorities include: helping the affected countries provide safe drinking water; making sure any disease outbreaks are detected before they spread; and re-building health care facilities wiped out by the tsunami.

Joanne Silberner

Suspected Mad Cow Case in Canada

Dec. 31, 2004 — The Canadian government says an animal there has tested positive on a screening test for mad cow disease. But U.S. officials say the news won't affect their decision to resume imports of Canadian beef.

The animal in question was a 10-year-old dairy cow. That means it was born well before the U.S. and Canada outlawed feeding practices thought to transmit mad cow disease.

It's possible the animal may not actually have the disease. Several positive preliminary tests on animals in the United States proved false when scientists did confirmatory tests, which can take up to a week.

U.S. agriculture officials say that regardless of the result, they'll end a 19-month ban on the importation of Canadian cattle. Beginning in March, Canadian cattle will be allowed as long as they are younger than 30 months old. Cattle that young are believed to pose no threat to human health.

Jon Hamilton

Birth Control & Overweight Women

Dec. 29, 2004 — A new study says overweight women need to be more careful when they use birth control pills. That's because oral contraceptives are more likely to fail for them, according to findings in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Overweight and obese women are 60 percent to 70 percent more likely to get pregnant while on the birth control pill. That's according to researchers who counted unplanned pregnancies among heavy and thin women using the pill.

A woman who is 5 foot 4 inches tall and who weights 160 pounds has a 60 percent greater risk of getting pregnant, the study found.

The authors were not sure why. But they note that a heavier woman has a higher metabolism. And that causes a medication in her body to work for less time. The researchers said that doesn't mean heavier women should take pills with higher levels of hormones — that would increase their risk of heart attack and stroke.

The authors suggest that overweight and obese women use backup forms of birth control.

Joseph Shapiro

Tsunami Relief Efforts

Dec. 28, 2004 — As local and international relief workers survey the tsunami's damage, health officials are figuring out the medical needs.

Sian Bowen, a spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says tsunami relief efforts will continue indefinitely.

"This is something we may only see once in our lifetime," Bowen says. "This is a huge catastrophe, and it's going to take many months, if not years, to sort out."

UNICEF is also working on efforts to provide food, shelter and clean water. The Red Cross is assessing the need for vaccinations, which may be helpful if refugees gather in large camps.

International public health experts say it's important to figure out what's actually needed and then coordinate relief efforts across organizations and governments. Otherwise, food, medicine and other supplies may pile up where they're not needed.

Joanne Silberner

Time Running Out to Get Medicare Discount Card

Dec. 27, 2004 — Low-income Medicare beneficiaries without drug coverage have only a few more days to sign up for a special $600 subsidy.

Medicare-approved drug discount cards have been available since last summer. The cards are a temporary program created by last year's Medicare bill to tide beneficiaries over until a new drug benefit starts in 2006.

Individuals with incomes under about $12,500, or couples earning under about $17,000, are eligible for a $600 subsidy this year and next — but only if they sign up for a card by December 31. Those who wait until next year can only get half the money.

The Access to Benefits Coalition, a consortium of senior and consumer groups, has posted a new selection tool on its Web site. Its goal is to help sign up as many eligible seniors and disabled Medicare enrollees as it can before the end of the year.

Julie Rovner

Troubles Getting Costly Drugs Covered by Medicare

Dec. 26, 2004 — A new report finds Medicare patients are having trouble gaining access to expensive drugs the program currently covers.

Medicare has long covered the cost of drugs directly administered by a doctor. They're mostly drugs for cancer chemotherapy or multiple sclerosis and can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per dose.

A new report from the advocacy group the Medicare Rights Center, however, says patients are having a harder time getting those drugs.

Medicare changed the way it reimburses doctors for such medications in 2003, and the report says many doctors fear they won't be fairly compensated, so they're reluctant to buy them at all. On the other hand, Medicare currently won't reimburse patients if they buy the drugs themselves for their doctors to administer. The group is calling on Medicare officials to change that policy.

Julie Rovner



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