Health Highlights: March 2, 2012

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

U.S. Senate Supports Controversial Policy on Contraceptives

The U.S. Senate on Thursday struck down a Republican-led proposal that would have allowed employers and health insurers to deny coverage of women's contraceptives for religious reasons.

"The Senate will not allow women's health care choices to be taken away from them," Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, told The New York Times after the 51-to-48 vote.

The proposal challenged a controversial provision of President Obama's health care plan requiring health insurers and employers to cover the cost of women's contraceptives, including sterilization procedures. After an outcry from Roman Catholics and other religious organizations, the White House modified the requirement, demanding full payment by health insurers but not religious employers such as churches.

Over four days of often heated debate, Republicans accused Democrats of violating the Constitution and trampling on religious freedom, while Democrats argued that the Republican measure would violate women's rights.

"The president's health care law empowers bureaucrats here in Washington to decide which tenets religious institutions can and cannot adhere to. If they don't get in line, they'll be penalized," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.

But Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius encouraged lawmakers to fight the Republicans' effort. "The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss," Sebelius said, The Times reported.


Door Closes on Disney's Childhood Obesity Exhibit

A new Epcot exhibit targeting childhood obesity is closing before its official opening because of complaints that it makes fat children feel bad, its Walt Disney World creators said.

The interactive Habit Heroes exhibit was scheduled to open at the Orlando theme park March 5, but feedback from preview visitors led Disney to delay the opening while it rethinks the attraction, the Associated Press reported. Blue Cross and Blue Shield are co-partners with Disney in the venture, designed to fight bad health habits.

Within the attraction, characters such as Will Power and Lead Bottom weighed in on the side of good health habits, fighting off villains such as Lead Bottom and Snacker.

According to the AP, the National Association of Fat Acceptance criticized the creators for using "the tool of shame" to deliver their message.

Blue Cross and Disney spokesmen said the early unofficial opening was intended to collect feedback and that they will improve the exhibit. The opening is postponed indefinitely.


USDA Adds Nutrition Labels to Raw Meats

As of March 1, packages of raw meat sold to Americans consumers will now have to come with nutrition labeling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a statement released Thursday.

The new rule includes whole, ground or chopped meats, CBS News reported, and will apply to meat bought at supermarkets or butcher shops. The labeling will include information similar to that seen on many other food products, such as levels of sodium and fat, as well as calorie counts.

According Dr. Elisabeth A. Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA, the new labeling is aimed at helping people get a better understanding of how much lean protein they are taking in each day. "You can't make the best choices if you don't have the right information," Hagen told CBS.


FDA Approves Four-Strain Flu Vaccine

A new nasal-spray flu vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration protects against four strains of common flu, adding one more barrier to infection.

Okayed for people 2 to 49 years old, the FluMist Quadrivalent vaccine from AstraZeneca guards against two strains of influenza A and two strains of influenza B, the Associate Press reported. Previous vaccines protected against two influenza A strains but only one influenza B strain.

"Illness caused by Influenza B virus affects children, particularly young and school-aged, more than any other population," Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the FDA biologics center, said in an agency news release.

Flu sickens millions of people a year. Annual deaths from flu vary widely, with FDA figures showing a low of 3,000 and a high of 49,000 over the past 30 or so years, the AP said.

The new vaccine, much like the existing FluMist vaccine, carries a weakened strain of the virus.


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