Health Highlights: Feb. 8, 2008

"Our analysis of the data shows a clear association between sleep duration and the risk for overweight or obesity in children. The risk declined with more sleep," senior author Youfa Wang, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Human Nutrition, said in a prepared statement.

Wang and colleagues found that children who got the least amount of sleep -- less than 9 hours for those under age five, and less than 7 hours for those over age 10 -- were 92 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than children who got more sleep, CBC News reported.

Lack of sleep may increase children's risk of being overweight and obese by affecting their metabolism and hormone levels, the researchers suggested.

"The prevalence of childhood obesity may be decreased by increasing sleep duration, independent of other risk factors for childhood obesity," the researchers wrote. "Our findings have some important public health implications for fighting the growing childhood obesity epidemic."

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Merck to Pay More Than $650 Million to Settle Drug Pricing Fraud Charges

In one of the largest-ever healthcare fraud settlements, New Jersey-based Merck & Co. agreed Thursday to pay more than $650 million to resolve charges that it cheated Medicaid out of millions of dollars in discounts over eight years through routine overbilling for the arthritis drug Vioxx and the cholesterol drug Zocor, the Washington Post reported.

According to U.S. prosecutors, Merck gave the drug to hospitals at low cost in order to get poor patients used to the expensive pills. When these patients were discharged from hospital, many kept taking the drugs and the government had to pay the higher costs.

The investigation began in 2000 after a Merck district sales manager alerted federal authorities about what he believed were questionable sales tactics by the company, the Post reported.

Merck did not admit wrongdoing. It stood by its pricing strategies, but wanted to resolve the matter, according to a statement released by executives of the United States' third-largest drug maker.

As part of the settlement, the company agreed to heightened oversight by regulators for five years. Merck remains the subject of a separate grand jury investigation related to Vioxx marketing. It's also trying to reach another multibillion-dollar settlement of thousands of lawsuits filed by people who had heart attacks after taking Vioxx.

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Expanded Recall of New Era Canned Vegetables

A nationwide recall of canned vegetable products made by the New Era Canning Company of Michigan is being expanded for a third time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Thursday. The recalled products may be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum, which produces the toxin that causes botulism. Infection with the toxin can cause life-threatening illness or death.

The recalled New Era products are large institutional-sized cans, weighing between six and seven pounds, of various types of beans, blackeye peas, and asparagus. They're marketed under ten different brand names: Classic Sysco; Code; Frosty Acres Restaurant's Pride Preferred; GFS; Kitchen Essentials; Monarch Heritage; Necco; New Era; Nugget; and Reliance Sysco.

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