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Health Headlines - May 15

Posted May 14 2009 11:07pm

Pfizer to Give Away Free Lipitor, Viagra to Jobless

Pfizer Inc., the world's largest drug maker, says it will give away free 70 or more of its most widely prescribed prescription drugs -- including Lipitor and Viagra -- to people who have lost their jobs and health insurance since Jan. 1 and have been on a Pfizer drug for three months or more.

Applicants will need to sign a statement that they are suffering financial hardship and provide a "pink slip" or similar notice of termination from work, theAssociated Pressreported. They will have until Dec. 31 to provide the information, and medications will be given for up to 12 months after approval or until the person is insured again. Starting Thursday, patients can call 866-706-2400, toll-free, to sign up, according to the company, and starting July 1, people can apply online at http://www.PfizerHelpfulAnswers.com. Those on drugs not included in the program will be referred to other company aid programs, theAPreported.

Impetus for the program came from a company leadership training meeting five weeks ago, where Pfizer workers discussed how many patients are struggling, Dr. Jorge Puente, head of Pfizer pharmaceuticals outside the United States and Europe and a project supporter, told the wire service. The free drug program is likely to garner goodwill for the company, theAPreported, and just as likely to help retain Pfizer customers during the current economic downturn.

Among drugs to be covered under the plan, Pfizer said, are the painkiller Celebrex, the fibromyalgia treatment Lyrica, and several antibiotics, antidepressants, antifungal treatments, heart medications, contraceptives and smoking cessation products.

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CDC Offers Tips to Prevent Summer Pool Chemical Injuries

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that pool chemical injuries are responsible for an estimated 5,200 visits a year to hospital emergency rooms, but safe handling and storage of water treatment products can make these injuries preventable.

Most of these injuries take place during summer's swimming season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and can occur in or out of the pool, according to a report in the CDC'sMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The study was released ahead of the CDC's National Recreational Water Illness Prevention Week, May 18-20, which seeks to raise public awareness about safe behaviors around recreational water and safe storage of home pool chemicals.

"Pool chemicals make the water we swim in safer by protecting us from germs, but these same chemicals can also cause injuries if they are not properly handled," Michele Hlavsa, the study's lead author and an epidemiologist at CDC, said in a CDC news release. Both public and private pool operators and homeowners can protect themselves by:

  • Securing all pool chemicals in a safe area, away from children.
  • Reading manufacturers' instructions fully before using any chemicals.
  • Wearing appropriate clothing -- mask, gloves, and safety glasses -- to protect against burns or inhaling noxious fumes.
  • Avoiding mixing chlorine products with each other, with acid, or with any other substance.

Swimming is the second most popular sports activity in the United States, according to the CDC report, with approximately 339 million swimming visits to recreational water venues. To prevent illnesses at public venues, the agency suggests parents not take children swimming when youngsters are ill with diarrhea, not swallowing pool water, taking children on frequent bathroom breaks and practicing good hygiene.

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Congress Weighs Broad Changes in Health Care Legislation

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are considering broad health-care changes that include aid to families earning up to $88,000 to help pay for insurance, a requirement that all must carry coverage, and for employers to offer coverage to full-time workers or pay a percentage of their payroll to the government, theAssociated Pressreported.

While a document from the House's Energy and Commerce Committee that was obtained by theAPdoes not include any cost estimates, outside experts have said the plans could run from $1.2 trillion to as high as $1.7 trillion over 10 years as Congress tries to meet the Obama administration's goal of a health-care overhaul by the end of July, the news service reported.

President Barack Obama has proposed a downpayment of $634 billion over 10 years to pay for expanding coverage and has said he'll hold hospitals, doctors, drug makers and other health-care providers to their recent offer of $2 trillion in savings over that 10-year period, theAPsaid.

In addition, the House plan would set up an insurance purchasing pool, or an "exchange," open only to companies with fewer than 10 workers, to make coverage more affordable for individuals and small businesses. The plan also seeks creation of a new government insurance plan to compete with private companies, likely run by the Health and Human Services department, and financed by premium payments, not taxpayer dollars, theAPsaid.

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U.S. Prescription Drug Use Falls for 1st Time in Decade: Report

For the first time in a decade, prescription drug use in the United States fell last year, even as total spending on drugs increased as prices for brand-name products rose sharply, theAssociated Pressreported.

Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefits managing company that handles drug benefits for some 60 million people, said the overall number of prescriptions was down. The reasons: fewer new drugs hit the market last year, some big-selling drugs such as Zyrtec -- an allergy medication -- became available without a prescription, and other drugs faced decreased use because of safety issues. The combination of those factors was responsible for the downturn in prescriptions, Medco said, theAPreported.

Total prescription drug spending grew 3.3 percent last year, Medco said, chiefly because of greater use of "specialty" drugs treating chronic or complex illnesses. Diabetes drugs, specialty treatments for cancer, as well as drugs for rheumatological disease, seizure disorders and antiviral drugs also increased. Average pricing of brand-name pharmaceuticals in 2008 rose more than 8 percent, the fastest increase in five years,APsaid.

Medco projected that prescriptions would rise no more than 1 percent in 2009 and in 2010, theAPreported, but added that higher prices would boost total spending by 3 percent to 5 percent this year and 4 percent to 6 percent next year.

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Scientist Held for Smuggling Ebola Research Vials Into U.S.

A 42-year-old Canadian scientist has been arrested for smuggling 22 vials stolen from Canada's National Microbiology Lab -- used in Ebola and HIV research -- into the United States, officials from both countries report.

Konan Michel Yao was arrested while crossing from Manitoba province into North Dakota on May 5, said a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab,Agence France-Pressereported. U.S. prosecutor Lynn Jordheim said Yao was carrying the unidentified materials in aluminum foil inside a glove and packaged in a plastic bag in the trunk of his car when he was detained. Yao said he had stolen the vials on his last day of work on Jan. 21 and was taking them to his new job with the U.S. National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Md.,AFPreported.

"This turned out not to be a terrorism-related case," Jordheim toldAFP. "It appears to be exactly as he said. However, he still faces possible charges for smuggling the vials into the United States."

A Canadian health agency spokesperson said the Ivory Coast-born Yao worked on vaccines for the Ebola virus and HIV, but only had access to harmless and non-infectious materials, according toAFP. U.S. authorities tested the contents of Yao's packages and determined they were not hazardous.

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