Health Highlights: Feb. 24, 2008

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

FEMA Agrees to Test Trailers for Formaldehyde Levels

People living in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after hurricanes savaged the Gulf Coast in 2005 can file a request to get their units tested for formaldehyde contamination, the Associated Press reports.

This decision comes after results of testing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that fumes from 519 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi averaged about five times higher than levels found in most modern homes. In some trailers, the levels were nearly 40 times higher, prompting concerns that the residents could come down with breathing problems, the A.P. reported.

    • FEMA Agrees to Test Trailers for Formaldehyde Levels
    • Hepatitis A May Have Infected 'A List' Celebrities at Manhattan Nightclub
    • Insurer Ordered to Pay Breast Cancer Patient $9 Million After Canceling Coverage
    • Quitting Smoking More Difficult for Blacks, Hispanics: Study
    • Companies Agree to Halt Unapproved Health Claims About Products
    • More Countries Reporting Tamiflu-Resistant Flu Viruses

FEMA provided about 120,000 travel trailers to victims of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2006, some occupants began reporting headaches and nosebleeds. The complaints were linked to formaldehyde, a colorless gas with a pungent smell used in the production of plywood and resins, according to the A.P.

FEMA announced late last week that it would allow free testing for anyone living in government-issued trailers associated with the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as people living in trailers associated with tornadoes, floods and other disasters during the past two years.

"We do not want people exposed to this for very much longer," Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards, told the wire service. About 200 trailers and mobile homes would be tested each week, FEMA officials told the A.P..


Hepatitis A May Have Infected 'A List' Celebrities at Manhattan Nightclub

In yet another instance of disease not discriminating, hundreds of guests who attended a 30th birthday party at a popular new York City nightclub for actor Ashton Kutcher early in February may have been exposed to hepatitis A and might have to be vaccinated.

The Associated Press reports that a bartender at the Greenwich Village hotspot Socialista has been diagnosed with the highly infectious disease, which is spread through simple physical contact, such as shaking hands, a kiss on the cheek or merely touching an object like a glass or a bowl held by someone with the disease.

More than 700 people -- many of them celebrities such as Kutcher's wife Demi Moore, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bruce Willis -- were reported to have attended the party, the wire service reported, although there was no confirmation that anyone had received a vaccination.

Hepatitis A is rarely fatal, the A.P. reports, but it can last a long time. It comes from fecal matter, and people exposed to it should get a vaccine injection within two weeks of exposure.


Insurer Ordered to Pay Breast Cancer Patient $9 Million After Canceling Coverage

A California breast cancer patient whose insurance company stopped paying for her chemotherapy treatments before they were completed has been awarded $9 million.

The ruling judge termed the actions of the insurer, Health Net of California, "reprehensible," just as the Los Angeles city attorney announced another lawsuit against Health Net on charges it illegally canceled claims from about 1,600 patients, according to the Associated Press.

The cancer patient, Patsy Bates, 52, had her chemotherapy payment benefits cut off by Health Net in 2004 after she had undergone only two treatments, the wire service reported. She was left owing her doctors almost $130,000. The insurance company had an incentive program for its reviewers, rewarding them for rejecting or eliminating benefit payments, the AP reported.

A Health Net spokesperson told the wire service it had such a program in 2003 and 2004, but that it had been suspended, pending a review of the company's procedures. "Obviously we regret the way that this has turned out, but we are intent on fixing the processes to maintain the public trust," spokesman David Olson told the AP.

"It's hard to imagine a policy more reprehensible than tying bonuses to encourage the recision of health insurance that helps keep the public well and alive," arbitration judge Sam Cianchetti wrote in his decision.


Quitting Smoking More Difficult for Blacks, Hispanics: Study

Quitting smoking is a difficult task for almost anyone. For Hispanics and blacks, it may be even harder to give up cigarettes.

Columbia University researchers have found that minority smokers had less success with various smoking cessation treatments than whites, and while the exact reason for this isn't known, the scientists were able to identify some common factors that may explain the difference.

According to a university news release, 559 smokers were used for the study -- 360 were white, 126 black and 73 Hispanic. The participants were given eight weeks of treatment using three widely accepted stop-smoking methods: buproprion (Zyban), the nicotine patch, and individual counseling.

During the last four weeks, about 60 percent of the white participants were able to stop smoking, compared to 41 percent of the Hispanic group and 38 percent of the blacks, the researchers found.

The scientists weren't able to determine an exact cause for the differences, according to study author, Lirio Covey, associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. But there were some common factors among study participants, she added.

"In order for successful smoking cessation to occur, treatment must be tailored to specific population groups based on better knowledge of these groups," Covey said in the news release.

"In African-Americans, quitting occurred less frequently among participants with lower body mass index and a household member who smoked," the university news release said. "For Hispanics, age was a significant predictor in that those who were older were more successful at quitting." The findings are published in the winter edition of the journal Ethnicity & Disease.


Companies Agree to Halt Unapproved Health Claims About Products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that it has obtained a permanent injunction against Brownwood Acres Foods and Cherry Capital Services (doing business as Flavonoid Sciences) and two of their top executives, prohibiting them from making and distributing any products with label claims about curing, treating, mitigating or preventing disease.

The companies, which make various products including juice concentrates, soft fruit gel capsules, fruit bars, dried fruits, liquid glucosamine and salmon oil capsules, have a history of promoting unapproved health claims about their products, the FDA said in a prepared statement.

Under terms of a signed consent decree, the companies agreed to remove drug and unauthorized health claims from their labels, brochures and Web sites.

"The FDA will not tolerate unsubstantiated health claims that may mislead consumers. The FDA will pursue necessary legal action to make sure companies and their executives manufacture and distribute safe, truthfully labeled products to consumers," Margaret O'K. Glavin, the agency's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, said.


More Countries Reporting Tamiflu-Resistant Flu Viruses

The number of countries with reported cases of Tamiflu-resistant H1N1 influenza viruses has increased to 20, the World Health Organization said Thursday in an update posted on its Web site. Many countries have stockpiled Tamiflu (oseltamivir) as a front-line defense in the event of a flu pandemic.

The list of countries reporting Tamiflu-resistant influenza now includes Japan, which uses more of the drug than any other nation, the Canadian Press reported.

Since January, resistant flu viruses have been detected in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, the United States and 15 European countries. Rates of resistance vary from country to country. The overall resistance rate in Europe is about 19 percent but is much higher in some countries, such as in France (40 percent). The rate of resistance in Canada and the United States is about 8t percent.

Experts noted that H1N1 viruses that carry the genetic mutation that protects them against Tamiflu are still susceptible to the drugs zanamivir (Relenza), amantadine, and rimantadine, the CP reported.