HEALTH

CDC reports decrease in flu activity

BY Allison Cerra

ATLANTA Although 43 states have reported widespread influenza activity for the week ended Nov. 14, numbers appear to be dropping, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted Friday.

In its weekly situational update, the CDC reported that the number of states reporting widespread activity of the H1N1 virus dropped to 43 from 46 in the past week. Additionally, influenza-like illnesses nationally decreased again to 5.5%. This is the third consecutive week of national decreases after four consecutive weeks of sharp increases.

On a regional level, the percentage of outpatient visits for influenza-like illnesses ranged from 2.6% to 7.9% during week 45, and decreased in all 10 surveillance regions, compared with the previous week. All 10 regions, however, reported a proportion of outpatient visits for influenza-like illnesses above their region-specific baseline levels (2.3%).

“Influenza is unpredictable, and it is so early in the year to have this much disease. We don’t know if these declines will persist, what the slope will be, whether we’ll have a long decline or it will start to go up again,” said Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of cases that feature a mutated version of the virus, which apparently is resistant to antiviral Tamiflu, making the disease much more severe. Schuchat, however, said the mutation is no reason for alarm.

“I don’t think it has the public health implications that we would wonder about,” she said, noting that some patients have gotten severely ill, including developing pneumonia, after being infected with strains of the virus without the mutation.

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Report finds influenza incidence rates lower among those immunized last year

BY Michael Johnsen

SILVER SPRING, Md. According to a report prepared in October by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, those individuals who received their flu shots last year may be better protected against the novel H1N1 influenza virus as compared with those who did not get inoculated.

The study was presented Thursday at the 58th annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Washington.

By the beginning of 2009, influenza-like illness and pneumonia and influenza incidence rates were lower among immunized service members compared to those unimmunized, the agency stated. The difference in these rates increased greatly after week 20, corresponding to the emergence of the novel H1N1 virus.

According to published reports, last year’s seasonal flu vaccine made it 62% less likely that a service-member would be hospitalized because of H1N1 virus this year; and 42% less likely to have consulted a doctor for an ILI or P&I.

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Save Flexible Spending Plans lobbying FSA reform

BY Michael Johnsen

WASHINGTON A lobbying group representing employers and insurance companies on Thursday issued a statement criticizing the Senate healthcare-reform bill for including a provision that would discontinue coverage of over-the-counter medicines through flexible spending accounts.

“It is disappointing that the Senate is determined to fund healthcare reform by restricting access to flexible spending accounts, a valuable benefit relied upon by more than 35 million Americans to help hold down healthcare costs,” stated Joe Jackson, chairman of Save Flexible Spending Plans and CEO of benefits provider WageWorks. “Severely curtailing the use of FSAs will not only force participants to pay more in healthcare costs, it flies in the face of President [Barack] Obama’s pledge to not raise taxes on the middle class.”

According to the group, most FSA participants are middle income, earning approximately $55,000 annually. Individuals and families with chronic illnesses typically receive the most benefit from FSAs, incurring annual out-of-pocket expenses averaging $4,398 per year, the group claimed, citing the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found. Approximately 44% of Americans have one or more chronic conditions, SFSP stated.

SFSP is lobbying for more than just reinstatement of OTCs as part of FSAs, the group is also calling for an increase of the $2,500 cap on FSA contributions. “Failing to adjust the cap for inflation will cause the value of a $2,500 FSA to plummet to less than half that amount within a decade,” the association stated.

Save Flexible Spending Plans is a national grassroots advocacy organization that protects against the restricted use of flexible spending accounts in healthcare reform efforts. The campaign is sponsored by the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation a nonprofit organization dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of private employee benefit programs on a tax-advantaged basis.

The organization has two driving missions — first to represent and promote flexible compensation programs through effective lobbying, and second to provide information on flexible compensation programs to national opinion leaders and the general public.

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