Health Highlights: Dec. 23, 2014

Health Highlights: Dec. 23, 2014

Health Highlights: Dec. 23, 2014

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

Nearly 2 Million New Enrollees for 2015 'Obamacare' Plans

More than 1.9 million new customers have signed up for individual insurance plans for 2015 via HealthCare.gov, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said on Tuesday.

That brings the total number of enrollees who've signed up through the site to more than 6 million, with the other 4.5 million people being re-enrollees from last year, NBC News reported.

HealthCare.gov markets individual health care coverage plans in 36 states. According to Burwell, the latest numbers do not include plans sold by state-run exchanges, including high-population states such as California and New York.

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FDA Targets Companies Selling Caffeine Powder

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to pursue legal action against companies that are still selling pure powdered caffeine.

Just a teaspoon of the powder -- the equivalent of about 25 cups of coffee -- can be deadly, the Associated Press reported. People may consume the powder for an energy boost.

In May 2014, an 18-year-old from LaGrange, Ohio, died after consuming the powder. And, the substance also likely played a role in the death of a Georgia man earlier this year. After the teen's death, the FDA alerted consumers to the dangers of powdered caffeine.

However, because the powder is marketed as a dietary supplement, the FDA doesn't have the authority to order manufacturers to stop selling the product, the AP said.

It's "inherently irresponsible" to continue selling powdered caffeine, and "I would hope that people would get the message that they just ought to stop selling it," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner of foods, told the AP. He added that the FDA will "pursue all legal options" against companies who continue selling the substance.

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North Carolina Abortion Law Struck Down

A law that required North Carolina abortion doctors to display and describe an ultrasound to pregnant women -- even if the woman refused to look or listen -- was struck down on Monday.

In a unanimous decision, the appeals court ruled that the law violated doctors' rights to free speech and was "ideological in intent," according to an Associated Press report.

One of the 2011 law's primary sponsors, North Carolina's Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson, didn't agree with the court's ruling, the AP said.

"I still believe that women deserve to have all the information necessary to make an informed choice. This is a life-changing decision for many women," Samuelson said.

Others agreed with the ruling. "Exam rooms are no place for propaganda, and doctors should never be forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians who wish to shame and demean women," explained Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Twenty-three states currently have laws regarding the administration of ultrasounds by abortion providers, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a group that supports abortion access. Most of these laws are in states in the South or Midwest, they noted.

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New Tick-Borne Disease Claims First Victim

A newly discovered virus transmitted by ticks -- dubbed the Bourbon virus -- has been blamed for the death of a Kansas man.

The virus is called the Bourbon virus because it was first seen in Bourbon County, Kansas, where the man lived, according to a report from ABC News.

The man became ill over the summer, and doctors didn't know what made him sick. Since his mysterious death, doctors from the University of Kansas Hospital, along with the Kansas Department of Health and researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been working to figure out what caused his illness.

The investigators eventually discovered the Bourbon virus, which has similarities to viruses found in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. It also shares some similarities to another tick-borne illness called the Heartland virus. Both cause fever and malaise, but the Bourbon virus also makes people stop eating, according to the ABC News report.

Many tick-borne illnesses are caused by bacteria -- such as Lyme disease -- and respond to antibiotic treatment. But, because it's a viral infection, the Bourbon virus can't be treated with antibiotics, according to Dr. Dana Hawkinson from the University of Kansas Hospital.

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FDA Approves Combo Hepatitis C Treatment

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved a new combination treatment for people with chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Hepatitis C can lead to advanced liver disease without treatment.

The drug, Viekira Pak, includes a pill containing three antiviral drugs (ombitasvir, paritaprevir and ritonavir) along with a dasabuvir pill, according to the FDA. All but ritonavir are new.

"The new generation of therapeutics for hepatitis C virus is changing the treatment paradigm for Americans living with the disease," Dr. Edward Cox, director of antimicrobial products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in an agency news release.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, a viral disease that can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer if untreated.

Viekira Pak -- marketed by Chicago-based AbbVie Inc. -- can be used with or without ribavirin, another drug often prescribed for hepatitis C patients. But Viekira Pak is not recommended for patients whose liver does not function properly, the FDA said.

In six clinical trials evaluating Viekira Pak, the most common side effects reported were fatigue, itching, feeling weak, nausea and trouble sleeping, the FDA said.

In the past 13 months, the FDA has approved three other drug products to treat chronic hepatitis C infection: Olysio (simeprevir), Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) and Harvoni (ledipasvir and sofosbuvir).

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