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Health Highlights: March 24, 2014

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

Birth Control Coverage Lawsuit Before U.S. Supreme Court

The rights of women to use birth control of their choice versus the religious rights of employers are at the center of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in a lawsuit launched by two family-owned companies that oppose having to include coverage for certain contraceptives in their health plans as part of the health care law's preventive care requirement, the Associated Press reported.

Under the law, health plans must offer at no extra charge all forms of birth control that have been approved by federal regulators. Nearly 50 companies have launched lawsuits because they don't want to pay for all forms of birth control.

The two companies in this case before the Supreme Court this week are willing to cover most types of birth control, but not drugs or devices that work after an egg has been fertilized.

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. is owned by the Green family, who are evangelical Christians. The company -- which has more than 15,000 full-time workers in more than 600 stores in 41 states -- and the Green family say their "religious beliefs prohibit them from providing health coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices that end human life after conception," the AP reported.

The other company involved in the case is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of Pennsylvania, which is owned by a Mennonite family. The company makes wood cabinets and has 950 employees.

The contraceptive methods opposed by the companies included the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, and two intrauterine devices (IUDs).

If these companies have their way, their female employees would have to make decisions about birth control based on cost, instead of what's best for their health, according to the Obama administration.

Research shows that nearly one-third of women would switch the type of birth control they use if cost wasn't an issue, according to supporters of the government's contraception coverage rules. An IUD can cost up to $1,000.

"Women already have an income gap. If these companies prevail, they'll have a health insurance gap, too," Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, told the AP.

If the two companies win this lawsuit, then employers nationwide would be able to use religious objections under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to avoid other laws, including those covering minimum wage, immunizations and Social Security taxes, according to the Obama administration.

Other lawsuits challenging the birth control coverage provision of the health care law have been launched by religiously-affiliated colleges, hospitals and charities, the AP reported.

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Ebola Outbreak in Guinea Has Killed 59 People

At least 59 people have died in an Ebola outbreak in the West African nation of Guinea, according to UNICEF.

Those deaths occurred among the 80 people who have contracted the deadly hemorrhagic fever since it first appeared last month. Officials said at least three of the victims were children, CNN reported.

"In Guinea, a country with a weak medical infrastructure, an outbreak like this can be devastating," Dr. Mohamed Ag Ayoya, the UNICEF representative in Guinea, said in a statement released by the agency.

Most of the cases have occurred in the forest area of southern Guinea and all patients are being offered free treatment, according to health officials, CNN reported.

UNICEF has prepared supplies and is informing medical workers and local people how to avoid contracting the disease. The international charity Doctors Without Borders is sending additional people to Guinea, flying in 33 tons of medicines and equipment, and establishing isolation units in the areas affected by the Ebola outbreak.

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Climate Change Effects Pose an Immediate Threat to People: Experts

The threats posed by climate change are immediate and put people worldwide at risk for dangers such as drought, flooding, disease, hunger, war and other calamities, according to experts.

Leaked drafts suggest that the more than 60 scientists attending the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting in Japan this week will issue a report that says the impacts of climate change will occur far more quickly and locally than scientists once believed, according to the Associated Press.

Many effects of climate change are already evident, including more heat waves in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, severe floods in Africa and Australia, and more intense and damaging rainfalls in Europe and North America.

The researchers stress that climate change isn't just a threat that will occur years from now and affect only plants and animals such as the polar bear, which is the first species to be listed as threatened by climate change.

"The polar bear is us," Patricia Romero Lankao, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told the AP. She is one of the 60 scientists on the panel who will write the report. Representatives from about 100 governments are also at the meeting.

Previous reports by the panel -- created in 1988 by the United Nations -- have been ignored because the effects of climate change seemed too far away in both time and location, according to Michael Mann, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

The new report will warn that the impact of climate change is "not far-off in the future and it's not exotic creatures -- it's us and now," Mann told the AP. He was not involved in the new report.

The panel's last report was issued in 2007 and won a Nobel Peace Prize. For their new report, the panel has reviewed the latest scientific evidence about climate change.

"Climate change really is a challenge in managing risks," the new report's chief author, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science in California, told the AP. "It's very clear that we are not prepared for the kind of events we're seeing."

In the past, the message conveyed by scientists may have been that people should be concerned about climate change because of its effects on the environment, according to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who was not involved in the new report.

"We care about it because it's going to affect nearly every aspect of human life on this planet," she told the AP.

Earlier this month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a new fact sheet on climate change.

It stated: "Climate change is already happening. More heat waves, greater sea level rise and other changes with consequences for human health, natural ecosystems and agriculture are already occurring in the United States and worldwide. These problems are very likely to become worse over the next 10 to 20 years and beyond."

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Nicotine 'E-Liquids' a Serious Health Threat: Experts

A potent, liquid form of nicotine poses a serious and potentially deadly threat, but is sold legally in stores across the United States and online.

The so-called "e-liquids" -- which are the key ingredients in e-cigarettes -- are extracted from tobacco and enhanced with flavorings, colorings and various chemicals, The New York Times reported.

The liquids, which come in small bottles that people keep on hand in order to refill their e-cigarettes, are not regulated by the federal government.

E-liquids are powerful neurotoxins that can cause vomiting, seizures and even death when small amounts are ingested or absorbed through the skin. A small child can be killed by only a teaspoon of even highly diluted e-liquid, according to The Times.

Experts warn that children are at special risk because they may be attracted by e-liquids' bright colors and appealing flavors such as bubble gum, chocolate and cherry.

"It's not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed," Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System and a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Times. "It's a matter of when."

The number of accidental poisonings involving e-liquids was 1,351 in 2013, a 300 percent increase from 2012. The number of cases is on track to double this year, according to National Poison Data System figures.

"This is one of the most potent naturally occurring toxins we have," Cantrell said of nicotine. Despite the danger, e-liquids are now available almost everywhere in the U.S. "It is sold all over the place. It is ubiquitous in society."

The Food and Drug Administration has said it plans to regulate e-cigarettes, but has not provided any details, The Times reported.

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