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Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2018

Last Updated: December 20, 2018.

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

Deadly Marburg Virus Found in West African Bats

The deadly Marburg virus -- which is related to the Ebola virus -- has been found for the first time in West Africa, scientists say.

The Marburg virus -- which has a death rate as high as 90 percent in humans -- was found in five Egyptian rousette fruit bats in Sierra Leone, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No cases of human illness from the Marburg virus have been reported in Sierra Leone, but the fact that the virus has been found in bats means that people nearby could be at risk of infection.

There have been 12 known Marburg virus outbreaks directly linked with Africa. The most recent was in Uganda in 2017. The largest and deadliest Marburg virus outbreak occurred in Angola in 2005, and killed 90 percent of the 252 people who were infected, according to the CDC.

Two of the four strains of Marburg virus found in the bats in Sierra Leone are genetically similar to the strain that caused the Angola outbreak. It's the first time these strains have been detected in bats.

"We have known for a long time that rousette bats, which carry Marburg virus in other parts of Africa, also live in West Africa. So it's not surprising that we'd find the virus in bats there," CDC ecologist Jonathan Towner, who led a CDC team involved in the research, said in an agency news release.

"This discovery is an excellent example of how our work can identify a threat and help us warn people of the risk before they get sick," he added.

The researchers said the bats can carry the Marburg virus without getting sick, and can transmit it to humans or other animals through their saliva, urine, or feces.


Obamacare Sign-Ups Higher Than Expected

Despite numerous difficulties, early figures show that sign-ups for health coverage next year under the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") are higher than expected.

As of last Saturday's deadline for open enrollment, 8.5 million people in 39 states had enrolled. Another dozen states, including California and New York, still have to provide their numbers, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said, the Associated Press reported.

That initial tally is about 4 percent lower than the previous sign-up, but a much larger decline had been predicted.

Nearly 11.8 million people nationwide signed up last year, and it's possible that number could be reached again this year after all the numbers are in, the AP reported.

One note of concern is that the number of new customers this year was down by 15 percent compared to last year.

While premiums have stabilized and consumers have more choices under the Affordable Care Act, premiums for comprehensive coverage remain too high for many people who don't quality for financial assistance, the AP reported.

Other challenges facing the program include repealing of the requirement for Americans to have health insurance, reduced advertising, and competition from lower-cost insurance that provides less coverage.

Last Friday, a federal judge in Texas ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Opponents plan to appeal the decision.

The new sign-up numbers suggest that even with such struggles, there is still strong support for the health care law.

"Despite everything that has been thrown at this market, politically, with premium increases and also regulation changes, there is still a core group of Americans who want this insurance and buy this insurance every year," Chris Sloan of the consulting firm Avalere Health, told the AP. "They are a hardy group of people."


Trump Administration Lead Plan Could be 'Sham,' Critic

A Trump administration plan to protect children from exposure to lead fails to provide specifics and could be a "sham," critics say.

The Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward on revising standards for lead in dust and drinking water and be next March will release further measures, including metrics for monitoring progress on lead abatement, acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

However, environmental and public health advocates said the plan lacks deadlines for regulatory or enforcement action.

"It may be a sham of a plan," Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of a federal advisory committee on childhood health, told the AP.

Lead exposure can cause brain damage and other major health problems.

Children in at least 4 million American households are exposed to high levels of lead, and a half-million children ages 5 or younger have blood lead levels that should lead to public health action, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AP reported.


Prescribe Overdose Antidote Along With Opioid Painkillers: FDA Advisory Panels

The labels of prescription opioid painkillers should advise doctors to consider simultaneously prescribing the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, two U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panels recommend.

The 12-11 vote during a joint meeting of the committees was described by several members as a message to the federal government to make naloxone more widely available, easier to obtain, and cheaper, the Washington Post reported.

Naloxone can be injected or sprayed into the noses of overdose victims.

Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory urging opioid users, their families and friends to keep naloxone nearby, the Post reported.

While not required to do so, the FDA often follows the recommendations of its advisory committees.

In 2017, there were a record 70,000 drug overdose deaths, including a record 47,600 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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