NPR Health News Briefs: Jan. 17 - Jan. 23, 2005

Read a roundup of the latest health briefs from NPR:

Childrens' Health Insurance Gets Money Back

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is redistributing more than a half a billion dollars to states for children's health insurance.

Last October, more than a billion dollars allocated for the State Children's Health Insurance Program went unspent. By law, the money reverted to the federal treasury. Now, outgoing HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson has used his own authority to reallocate $643 million of the unspent money.

Twenty-eight states will get new funds for childrens' health insurance, including five states that would have run out of funds for their existing program this year. Those states are Arizona, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

The new money will allow every state to continue to serve children at current caseloads, Thompson said in a statement. Members of Congress say they still hope to reach an agreement to restore the $1.1 billion that expired last year. — Julie Rovner

Automatic Defibrillators Better Than Drug

A new study shows people with heart failure are less likely to suffer sudden cardiac death if doctors implant an automatic defibrillator.

Patients with heart failure are at risk of dying from sudden disturbances in heart rhythm.

A large study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine compared treatments for potentially fatal rhythm disturbances. One group of patients with failing hearts got a drug called amiodarone that slows heart rhythms. Another group got automatic defibrillators — like the one Vice President Dick Cheney has. They shock the heart into a normal rhythm when necessary. A third group got a placebo pill.

After nearly four years, the defibrillator group had 23 percent fewer deaths compared with placebo patients. Those on amiodarone did not benefit. A journal editorial says most patients with severe heart failure should get defibrillator implants. They cost about $40,000. — Richard Knox

HHS Nominee on Medicaid, Supplements, Drug Prices

President Bush's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services appeared before a Senate committee today.

Former Utah governor and current Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt appeared before the first of two Senate Committees that handle health and human service issues. But only the Finance Committee, where Leavitt appears Wednesday, will vote on his nomination to HHS.

Leavitt said his first order of business will be implementing the 2003 Medicare overhaul. But he also made it clear that the Medicaid program for the poor will also be high on the administration's agenda.

"I believe Medicaid is a vital program." Leavitt told committee members. "I believe it is a remarkably important means by which we serve the poor in this country. But it is not meeting its potential to do good in the lives of the poor that it can."

The Bush administration is reportedly looking to cut as much as $100 billion from Medicaid over the next five years.

On other issues, Leavitt told Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that he would not increase regulation of dietary supplements, something Hatch has opposed for years.

Leavitt also said he doesn't support congressional efforts to allow the federal government to negotiate prices for the new Medicare drug benefit, set to start next year.

"I believe that the best way in which to keep drug prices competitive is to have a rigorous and active market," Leavitt told the committee. — Julie Rovner

Parental Notification Could Raise Sex Risk

Nearly one in five sexually active teenagers would engage in riskier sexual activity if their parents had to be notified before they could get prescription contraceptives, according to a new study.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 teenage girls under age 18 who were seeking contraceptives from publicly funded family-planning clinics. Sixty percent said a parent or guardian already knew they were using the clinic for sexual health services. Nearly as many said they would continue to use the clinic even if parental notification rules were implemented.

But only 7 percent of those surveyed said parental notification rules would prompt them to stop having sex. Instead, most of those who said they would stop using the clinics said they would use over-the-counter birth control, see a private doctor, or use less effective pregnancy prevention methods such as withdrawal before ejaculation.

The study appears in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.Julie Rovner

Folate Lowers Blood Pressure

A new study released today by the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that women who take large amounts of the vitamin folate can significantly reduce their risk of developing high blood pressure.

Folate is found naturally in foods such as leafy green vegetables and beans. And in recents years, manufacturers have added it to cereal and breads as part of a public health effort to prevent birth defects.

But the study released today found that taking a full 1,000 micrograms (mcg) of folate in the form of a supplement helped young women decrease their risk of high blood pressure by 46 percent.

The women who benefitted most from the supplement ranged in age from 27 to 44 years old. Women in the study aged 43 to 70 reduced their risk of hypertension, too, but at a much smaller rate of 18 percent. The results are part of the Nurses Health Study, which has followed the health more than 150,000 women for many years.

Even though it's a large study, researchers say more study is needed before women can be advised to starting taking more of the vitamin. — Allison Aubrey

Esophageal Cancer Rise Is Real

Researchers say there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Americans getting sick and dying from cancer of the esophagus, according to a new report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Health experts knew there had been a big increase in esophageal cancer over the past 25 years. What they didn't know was why.

They suspected it might be due to more sophisticated diagnostic tools, like endoscopy, which detects disease earlier than older methods.

In the study, researchers from Dartmouth Medical School analyzed cancer statistics from 1975 to 2001. They found only a small increase in the proportion of cases detected early due to greater use of diagnostic testing.

The scientists conclude that the six-fold increase in esophageal cancer over the 26-year period represents a true increase in disease, making cancer of the esophagus the fastest growing cancer in the U.S.

Researchers say the goal now should be to identify the risk factor or factors responsible for the rise. — Patricia Neighmond

CDC Says It Overstated Obesity Death Figures

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it overestimated the numbers of Americans dying of obesity related illness.

CDC officials published a letter in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association correcting what they describe as a 'computer' error. The error occured in March last year and appeared in CDC statistics.

The data indicated that the number of deaths caused by poor diet and physical inactivity increased by 100,000 over a ten year period. That increase meant that obesity was about to overtake smoking as the nation's number one cause of death.

Now, health officials have modified the number. They say obesity-related deaths increased by 65,000 over that ten year period — or 35,000 fewer deaths.

Even so, health officials emphasize that poor diet and physical inactivity, along with smoking, remain the leading causes of death. — Patricia Neighmond

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