Health Highlights: Nov. 23, 2009

By on November 23, 2009

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

Law Offers Genetic Testing Protections

A new law that took effect Saturday protects Americans from being forced by employers or health insurers to undergo genetic testing.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act prohibits employers from requesting genetic testing or using someone’s genetic background when making decisions about hiring, firing or promotions, The New York Times reported.

In addition, health insurers and group plans can’t require or use a customer’s genetic information — such as a family history of a certain disease — to deny coverage or set premiums or deductibles.

The law also forbids the common group health plan practice of giving lower premiums or one-time payments to workers who provide their family medical histories when filling out health risk questionnaires.

“The message to employees is they should now be able to get whatever genetic counseling or testing they need and be less fearful about doing so,” Peggy Mastroianni, associate legal counsel for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told The Times.

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Common Skin Germs May Protect Against Allergies

Being too clean can decrease the skin’s ability to heal, says a U.S. study that may help explain why exposure to germs during childhood helps protect against the development of allergies — the so-called hygiene hypothesis.

The University of California, San Diego researchers found that normal Staphylococci bacteria that live on the skin help prevent overactive immune responses that can cause cuts and scrapes to swell, BBC News reported.

“The exciting implication of the work is that it provides a molecular basis to understand the hygiene hypothesis and has uncovered elements of the wound repair response that were previously unknown,” said research leader Professor Richard Gallo said. “This may help us devise new therapeutic approaches for inflammatory skin diseases.”

The study appears online in the journal Nature Medicine.

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Man in Coma for 23 Years Was Actually Conscious

A Belgian man who spent 23 years in an apparent coma was fully conscious but couldn’t respond to other people because he was paralyzed, according to his mother.

Rom Houben had been believed comatose since a car crash in 1983. Even though doctors said he was in a vegetative state, Houben’s family believed he was conscious and sought further medical advice, the Associated Press reported.

One of the experts she consulted was Steven Laureys, who determined that the medical diagnosis of a coma was wrong and taught Houben how to communicate through a special keyboard.

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NFL May Change Concussion Policy

In what would be a major policy change, the National Football League may be considering using independent doctors to determine when players who’ve suffered concussions should return to play.

The league has faced harsh criticism from outside experts and lawmakers over how it handles players with concussions. Recently, the House Judiciary Committee compared the NFL to the tobacco industry, The New York Times reported.

Currently, doctors and trainers employed by the teams make decisions about when players who’ve suffered concussions should return to play. That’s raised charges of possible conflict of interest when owners and coaches want players to resume playing before they may be fully recovered.

“As we learn more and more, we want to give players the best medical advice. This is a chance for us to expand that and bring more people into the circle to make sure were making the best decisions for our players in the long term,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said during an interview Sunday on the NBC program “Football Night in America.”

He didn’t provide any details about the new guideline, such as when it might take effect, how independent doctors would be identified and paid, or even whether teams would have to follow the doctors’ advice, The Times reported.

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Health Care Reform Bill Moves to Senate Floor for Debate

Senate Democrats managed to push health care reform legislation past a key hurdle on Saturday night, with a cloture vote that will lead to a debate on the Senate floor later this month, the Associated Press reported.

The Senate bill roughly mirrors a health care reform bill that has already been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, although some major differences would have to be ironed out before a bill could reach the desk of President Barack Obama.

According to the New York Times, the Senate bill seeks to extend health benefits to roughly 31 million Americans who are now uninsured, at a cost of $848 billion over 10 years.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) announced the vote Saturday night.

“On this vote, the yays are 60, the nays are 39, three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to,” Dodd told reporters.

Prior to the vote, all 40 Republicans were on record as opposing the bill, and the Democrats did not have a single vote to spare, needing every Democrat and Independent who normally votes with Democrats to vote in favor of the motion. Two key Democrat votes were secured on Saturday.

During a long day of debate, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), had appealed to senators to advance the bill to the floor, saying it is their job to debate such a crucial issue.

President Barack Obama has made health care reform a top priority of his administration.

“Tonight we have the opportunity, the historic opportunity to reform health care once and for all,” Sen. Max Baucus (D.-Mont.), a chief architect of the legislation, said, according to the Times. “History is knocking on the door. Let’s open it. Let’s begin the debate.”

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