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Why the CDC declared a flu epidemic

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The CDC says the flu virus crossed into being an epidemic this past week.

Combined with a flu shot that's already been declared not as effective as most years, the agency has warned this flu season could be a severe one.

In its weekly FluView report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 22 states — mostly in the Midwest and Southeast — reported a high level of influenza activity.

Some other numbers to know; the CDC says the flu is widespread in 36 states, 15 children have died from the flu so far this season and the total number of deaths attributed to the flu hit 6.8 percent this past week. That's the exact percentage where the CDC declares an epidemic.

This year's predominant strain is the H3N2 virus, which caused harsh flu seasons as recently as two years ago. So why aren't we as protected by the flu shot as most years?

"What they're finding is in the predominant virus — at least, early on — it has drifted or become different from what they had predicted," The Washington Post's health blogger Lenny Bernstein said.

"By the time they knew that it had mutated to this extent, it was really too late to change the vaccine," Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa of the NYU Langone Medical Center told Fox News. "They figured this out around March. That's too late for a vaccine that really comes out in October."

You'll be hard-pressed to find a medical professional, however, who says to take this year off when it comes to getting a shot because they say some coverage is better than no coverage.

The summary of the CDC's weekly report says more states will likely fall into that high activity category soon and rather bluntly advises, "If you have not been vaccinated yet this season, get vaccinated now."

The head of Johns Hopkins' Office of Epidemiology and Infection Prevention pointed out children and the elderly are more susceptible and, if nothing else, she told The Washington Post average adults getting a shot "are in essence protecting those that are vulnerable."

Prepackaged caramel apples linked to 5 deaths, several illnesses

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Health officials are warning consumers to avoid prepackaged caramel apples after they were linked to five deaths and more than two dozen illnesses in 10 states.

The CDC says it knows of 28 cases in which people were sickened with the same strains of the bacterial illness listeria, with 26 of them hospitalized. Of those who were hospitalized, five died. The CDC said listeriosis contributed to at least four of the deaths.

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The agency said interviews showed that 83 percent of those sickened reported eating commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples before falling ill.

Three cases of meningitis linked to the listeria were also reported in children, the CDC said. The three children were not among those who died.

Those who fell ill got sick between Oct. 17 and Nov. 27. CDC said it's possible other illnesses have occurred since then. Christopher Braden of the CDC said the agency is still trying to determine the specific brands that were involved.

Two of the deaths were in Minnesota and one was in Texas, according to the CDC. The agency was not able to say where the other two deaths occurred.

The CDC said the illnesses also occurred in Arizona, California, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Supporters of Brittany Maynard release birthday video

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Nearly three weeks after her death, on what would have been her 30th birthday, Brittany Maynard returned to the national spotlight on Wednesday in a video in which she urges states to pass laws allowing terminally ill people to end their lives on their own terms.

The video, made in August, was released by an advocacy group that worked with Maynard during the last months of her life in a campaign that prompted a national debate about allowing terminally ill people to hasten their deaths.

The group, Compassion & Choices, is hoping that the practice will be expanded beyond the five that already allow it: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. But even though Maynard's story received national attention, the groundswell of support on a legislative level for laws like Oregon's has yet to materialize.

Compassion & Choices held a conference call with journalists on Wednesday, hoping to build on the momentum generated for the movement while Maynard was alive. After the news conference, the organization released a video that is partly narrated by Maynard.

In the video, Maynard says: "I hope for the sake of other American citizens ... that I'm speaking to that I've never met, that I'll never meet, that this choice be extended to you."

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>> Right-to-die advocate's mom blasts Vatican remarks

>> Social media reaction to the death of Brittany Maynard

>> Brittany Maynard, woman with terminal brain cancer, ends her own life

The video includes photographs of Maynard before her illness. It also features the voices of other terminally ill patients and their family members.

In the conference call, Compassion & Choices officials said legislators in about a dozen states plan to introduce right-to-die laws next year.

Also on the call were legislators from Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Pennsylvania Democrat whose 63-year-old father died of the same type of brain cancer as Maynard, said the young woman's campaign and his family's situation made it apparent why such bills are needed.

"I had to watch my father die of cancer... It was the most gut-wrenching experience our family and he had to endure," Rozzi said. "He would always tell me this is not the way he wanted to live."

A "death-with-dignity" bill was introduced in Pennsylvania last month. Rozzi conceded that it has been difficult getting bills out of the judiciary committee when they are opposed by the state's Catholic leadership.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, a Wyoming Republican, said he plans to introduce such legislation in his state.

Oregon was the first state to allow terminally ill patients to die using lethal medications prescribed by a doctor. Maynard moved from California to Oregon to make use of the Oregon law.

The New Jersey Assembly passed a bill last week that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, with some legislators citing Maynard's story as a deciding factor in their vote. But Republican Gov. Chris Christie has said he opposes the measure.

In California, the West Hollywood City Council this week passed a resolution that urges the Los Angeles County District Attorney to not prosecute physicians and family members who offer aid in dying to the terminally ill. But the state has no current bills or ballot measures on the issue.

Some religious groups and social conservatives, including a Vatican official and the American Life League, have heavily criticized Maynard's decision. Pope Francis denounced the right-to-die movement Saturday, saying the practice is a sin against God and creation and provides a "false sense of compassion." He didn't refer specifically to Maynard's case.

Compassion & Choices said its website has had more than 5 million unique visitors during the past month, while Maynard's two previous videos have been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube alone.

"I sense immense momentum right now," said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices. "Brittany Maynard is a new voice for a new generation of activists ... she devoted her precious energy to help ensure other dying Americans would have a choice."

Brittany Maynard, woman with terminal brain cancer, ends her own life

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Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who weeks ago announced plans to end her life, reportedly died Saturday. 

Maynard was diagnosed with a stage 4 glioblastoma last spring and told she had six months left to live. She then decided to move to Oregon with her husband and mother to utilize Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. (Video via Compassion & Choices)

>> Social media reaction to the death of Brittany Maynard

She eventually started an online video campaign for Compassion & Choices with the intent of expanding death with dignity laws nationwide. A spokesman from that group confirmed her death Sunday evening. 

Now, People quotes a post from Maynard's Facebook that reads: "Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more. ... Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!"

>> Previously: Terminally ill woman says now 'doesn't seem like the right time' to die

Brittany Maynard: "My goal of course is to influence this policy for positive change. I would like to see all Americans have access to the same health care rights."

Her movement started a conversation nationwide about dying in America and some media outlets point to a shift in national opinion.

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A social medical expert writes in The Washington Post, "We are beginning to focus on what patients want, on their right to self-determination. And people are increasingly asking why anyone — the state, the medical profession, religious leaders — would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will."

Five states in the U.S. have legislation in place that allows physicians to help patients end their lives in some circumstances. 


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A hidden danger of bottled water

Clark Howard is a nationally syndicated consumer advice expert

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I have talked for years about the enormous waste of money that drinking bottled water can be. One figure I've seen suggests that a dedicated drinker can blow as much as $1,400 a year on bottled water. That is big bucks for you to throw away!But this story just about takes the cake. There's now a "bottled water bar" in Los Angeles that has offerings from around the world. The bar is trying to elevate drinking bottled water to being something like pairing a meal with a fine wine!The most expensive offering on the water-tasting menu is Beverly Hills 9OH2O, a California-made bottle priced at a $40, according to The New York Daily News.The newspaper notes that the menu "describes each water featuring information on origin, mineral content and tasting notes."Wow, you just can't make this stuff up! As for me, I'm a filtered tap water guy. I have a Contigo bottle that holds about a liter and a half. I typically refill it three times during my broadcasts. I'm saving money everytime I do that.Now I've been reading how industry is adjusting to the increase in people drinking more water. One of the first industries to transition has been the water fountain business. The Wall Street Journal  reports more water fountains are being built with automatic sensors to trigger the water to start filling up your plastic bottle without you having to touch anything.I know there are scares from time to time with the safety of tap water. But I continue to believe tap water is safer than bottled water because it's tested many times a day in most municipalities. Bottled water, on the other hand, is only tested several times a year in some facilities.Recently, I heard a new health argument against bottled water that I want to bring to your attention. An Australian study cited by The Washington Post found that kids who don't drink fluoridated tap water have a more than 50% higher incidence of cavities.I recall back when fluoride was first introduced into public water supplies in America. At that time, there were opponents who said it was a Communist plot to poison the kids of America. But in reality fluoride in our drinking supply just reduces dental decay. And it's really dentists who deserve all the credit for getting fluoride in the water because they believed in it so strongly, even though it ultimately reduced their income.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drinking fluoridated public water can reduce cavities in kids by as much as 37% and in adults by as much as 47%. If you still insist on drinking bottled water, talk with your dentist about other ways (such as a fluoride rinse) to preserve your family's dental health.

5 ways to make healthy eating more cost-effective

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With more and more research showing the food we eat is directly related to how healthy our bodies are, many people are looking healthier food options. Eating "clean" may be good for you, but can the average person really afford it?Let's discuss some of the ways to make healthy foods more cost-effective. 1. Completely or mostly eliminate the junk.This one should go without saying, but most people that try to start buying more healthy options will still pick up a weekly supply of soda or continue to order sweet tea at every restaurant.Eliminating the junk from your diet not only reduces your spending costs, but it helps your health. And the other benefit? It leaves more room in your budget for fresh fruits and vegetables.2. Become familiar with your produce department, your local farmer's market, and/or any co-ops in your area. By becoming familiar with all of these things, you will be more comfortable buying because you know what the best products and prices are. Organic apples are $6.99/lb at the grocery store, but you can get 10lbs for $5 from Farmer John just down the street? Sounds like a no brainer! Check out for farmers, markets, and co-ops in your area.3. Avoid the pre-packaged processed foods...even the organic stuff!When people consider getting healthy, they check out the organic section at the grocery store and get sticker shock: "$8 for a box of cookies, are you kidding me?!"Well, the packaged stuff is the most expensive and not necessarily even healthy for you. Yes, I said it. Just because it has the word "organic" on it, does not mean it's healthy.When eating healthier, stick to clean/whole foods vs. buying a box of some pre-packaged processed stuff. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, nuts, beans, etc... these are your better options.4. Don't stick to just one store. 

That store loyalty card doesn't mean you have to remain loyal for every purchase you make. One of the ways I save the most money is by grabbing my deals from various places throughout the month.Once a month I'll head to Costco for my bulk organic purchases, once a week I'll pick up my produce basket from the co-op, and I'll stop randomly throughout the month at my other grocery stores for sale specials.5. If time is an issue, work with some friends/family locally to do some batch/freezer cooking.Once a month, you can all come together to cook your meals for the entire month. You'd be surprised how many meals you could knock out in a single day. Then your time is freed up, and you're less likely to spend money on more expensive processed foods or eating out.Do you already do some or all of these? What are some of your tips for making healthy foods more budget-friendly? Crystal Collins, a DealPro, is an Atlanta local, adventurer, a health advocate and thrifty as can be. Check her out on her blog at further reading:

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