Health Highlights: July 1, 2010

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

40 Million Expired Swine Flu Vaccine Doses to Be Destroyed

About 40 million doses of swine flu vaccine worth about $260 million will be destroyed because it's past the expiration date, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The amount of the outdated vaccine, which will be incinerated, is more than twice the usual surplus and likely sets a record, according to the Associated Press.

"It's a lot, by historical standards," admitted Jerry Weir, who is in charge of vaccine research and review for the FDA.

One government estimate suggests that about 30 million more swine flu vaccine doses could expire and have to be destroyed. If that's the case, it means that more than 43% of the total supply of swine flu vaccine for the U.S. public will have gone to waste, the AP reported.

The U.S. obtained about 162 million doses of swine flu vaccine for the general public and another 36 million doses for the military and other countries. But the swine flu epidemic was not as dangerous as originally feared.

"Although there were many doses of vaccine that went unused, it was much more appropriate to have been prepared for the worst case scenario than to have had too few doses," Bill Hall, spokesman for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the AP.


EPA Way Behind on Air Pollution Regulations: Report

A new report says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a decade behind schedule in developing emissions standards for many toxic air pollutants.

The standards, due in 2000, were meant to reduce air pollution from industries such as chemical manufacturers and smaller businesses such as dry cleaners and gas stations, said the paper released last week by the EPA's inspector general, The New York Times reported.

The EPA has also failed to meet goals listed in a 1999 planning document called the Integrated Urban Air Toxics Strategy, the inspector general said. The objectives include assessing city dwellers' risks of developing health problems from exposure to air pollution.

In response to the document, EPA officials said budget cuts have made it difficult for the agency to meet its deadlines. They noted that "air toxics support has been cut over 70%" since 2001, The Times reported.

Outside experts agree that the EPA has been handcuffed by lack of funding.


Americans With Pre-Existing Conditions to Get Health Coverage

A new program to help people who can't get health insurance because they have pre-existing health conditions was unveiled Thursday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As many as 350,000 people will receive coverage under the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, which will bridge the coverage gap until the Affordable Care Act takes effect in 2014, CNN reported.

In order to be eligible, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident who has been denied insurance by a private company because of a pre-existing condition and has been uninsured for at least six months.

Eligibility is not based on income. The wide range of benefits will include both primary and specialty care, hospitalization and prescription drugs. The federal government will run the program in 21 states, while 29 states plus the District of Columbia will operate their own plans, CNN reported.


Blacks Have Most Hospital Admissions for Hypertension: Report

Hospitalization for high blood pressure is five times more common among blacks than whites, according to a U.S. government report.

In 2006, the hospital admission rate for blacks was 161 per 100,000 people, compared with 61 per 100,000 for Hispanics and 33 per 100,000 for whites, says the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Among the other findings:

  • Asians and Pacific Islanders had the lowest hospital admission rate for hypertension -- 26 per 100,000.
  • Men were less likely than women to be admitted for high blood pressure -- 40 vs. 56 admissions per 100,000.
  • The poorest people were 2.5 times more likely to be admitted for hypertension than the wealthiest Americans -- 83 vs. 32 admissions per 100,000.

Hypertension significantly increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and kidney failure.


Scientists Developing Blood Test for Down Syndrome

Dutch researchers say they're close to developing a blood test to determine if a pregnant woman's unborn child has Down syndrome.

They say their test, which would reveal problems in fetal DNA and could be used as early as six to eight weeks of pregnancy, could be offered to high-risk women instead of an amniocentesis test, which carries a risk of miscarriage, BBC News reported.

If further study proves it's accurate, the test could be available within a few years, the researchers told delegates at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

A number of labs worldwide are working on different types of prenatal diagnostic tests for Down syndrome, said Professor Stephen Robson, spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in England.

"It is the holy grail of prenatal diagnosis to try and find a reliable method of diagnosing Down syndrome and other chromosome abnormalities without doing invasive testing," he told BBC News. "This is another technique that could offer the potential to diagnose Down syndrome non-invasively but it's important to emphasize that it is some years away."

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