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Health Highlights: May 21, 2016

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

Opioid Prescriptions Drop for First Time in Two Decades

In a sign that the opioid painkiller epidemic might be waning, new data shows that the number of prescriptions for the powerful painkillers has dropped for the first time in 20 years.

Ever since Oxycontin was first brought to the market in 1996, prescriptions have skyrocketed. But, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, fewer people were prescribed these highly addictive medications, The New York Times found in an analysis of several sources of data.

The trend suggests that doctors might finally be responding to repeated government efforts to curb use of the dangerous drugs, experts told the Times.

"The culture is changing," Dr. Bruce Psaty, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies drug safety, told the newspaper. "We are on the downside of a curve with opioid prescribing now."

IMS Health, which gathers prescribing information for the health care industry, found a 12 percent decline in opioid prescriptions nationally since a peak in 2012, the Times reported. Another data company, Symphony Health Solutions, reported an 18 percent drop during the same time period, the newspaper said.

And IMS also found that opioid prescriptions have fallen in 49 states since 2013.

But those figures have not translated into fewer fatal overdoses from opioids, the newspaper added. Those statistics continue to increase, with more than 28,000 deaths reported in 2014, according to the most recent federal health data.

Those deaths include overdoses from both prescription painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin, and heroin, an illegal drug that many have turned to as access to prescription drugs has become more restricted.

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Zika Virus Detected in Africa: WHO

The Zika virus strain causing outbreaks in the Americas has been confirmed in Africa for the first time, the World Health Organization says.

The strain is currently circulating in Cape Verde, an archipelago off the north west coast of Africa, BBC News reported.

"This information will help African countries to re-evaluate their level of risk and adapt and increase their levels of preparedness," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus can cause serious birth defects and neurological disorders. African nations should boost awareness among pregnant women about the threat posed by Zika and urge people to protect themselves against mosquitoes and sexual transmission of the virus, Moeti said.

However, she said did not recommend tight travel restrictions to try to halt the spread of the virus, BBC News reported.

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Doctors Would Face Felony Charges for Abortions Under Oklahoma Bill

A bill that would effectively ban abortions was passed Thursday by the Oklahoma Legislature.

Under the bill, doctors who perform abortions would be subject to felony charges and the loss of their medical licenses. It's the first of its kind in the United States, The New York Times reported.

The measure was passed by the Republican-dominated Senate by a vote of 33-12 and now goes to Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. She will have five days to sign it, veto it, or allow it take effect without her signature.

If the bill becomes law, it will quickly be challenged in state or federal court and likely declared unconstitutional, according to legal experts. That's because the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that women have a right to abortions until the fetus is viable outside the womb, The Times reported.

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Massive Recall of Frozen Fruits and Vegetables From CRF Frozen Foods

Millions of packages of more than 400 frozen fruit and vegetable products from CRF Frozen Foods have been recalled due to possible listeria contamination.

The products were distributed in all 50 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico and sold under more than 40 different brand names at retailers such as Safeway, Target, Costco and Trader Joe's, the Associated Press reported.

To date, eight people have been sickened by listeria that's genetically similar to that found in CRF frozen vegetables, and two have died, but listeria was not the primary cause of death.

An initial recall of 11 frozen vegetable products from CRF was announced April 22. But the recall was expanded May 2 to include all frozen organic and traditional fruit and vegetable products made or processed at the company's plant in Pasco, Washington since May 1, 2014.

"Unquestionably, this is a lot of product. ... It reflects the severity of listeria as an illness, the long duration of illnesses and the outbreak and the long shelf life of the products," Matthew Wise, leader of the outbreak response team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the AP.

Of the eight people who became ill, six were in California. The two deaths occurred in Maryland and Washington. The CDC is monitoring state illness reports for any additional cases linked to the recalled products, Wise said.

A list of the recalled CRF products is on the FDA website. Consumers should view the list and check their freezers for the recalled products, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said. She added that it's important to follow label directions for cooking frozen foods.

The CRF plant closed two weeks ago and the company is trying to identify the source of the contamination, according to company spokesman Gene Grabowski.

Listeria poses the greatest threat to people over 65 with weakened immune systems and pregnant women. Listeria causes about 1,600 cases of illness each year in the U.S., but only half are reported. About 18 percent of patients die, the AP reported.


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