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Health Headlines - March 5

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:23pm

Congress Members Call for Swift Action to Fix Military Hospital Conditions

Conditions for treating veterans at the U.S. government's Walter Reed Army Medical Center dominated the Sunday television talk show circuit, a day before Congress convenes a series of hearings into what has caused deterioration of outpatient services.

The Associated Press reports that lawmakers seem to be concerned about the physical condition not only at Walter Reed but also at government veteran treatment facilities across the country. "I'm worried about if it's this bad at the outpatient facilities at Walter Reed, how is it in the rest of the country? Because Walter Reed is our crown jewel," the wire service quotes Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., as saying.

Schumer has called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to convene an independent commission, possibly headed by former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, to take a look at military medical facilities and suggest changes, the wire service reports.

News reports during the past two weeks have highlighted deteriorating conditions for Iraq veterans who were treated as outpatients. The physical plant at Walter Reed was filled with mold, cracking plaster on walls and ceilings, leaks and unsanitary conditions.

President Bush has ordered a complete review and there will be a bipartisan commission named, the A.P. reports. The commanding officer at Walter Reed and the Secretary of the Army have already resigned because of the revelations.

Congressional support appears to cross political party lines, based on A.P.'s sampling of Sunday morning talk shows:

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan: "Almost no high-level people have ever been held accountable until Secretary Gates came along."

Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi: "Investigations are not always the best way to go, but I think we ought to do whatever's necessary."

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California: "He's [Secretary Gates] taken action, and not only low-level people but high-level people have been replaced, and I think that's welcome action."

Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan: an "appalling situation. Hopefully they're putting in place the leadership that will make sure that our troops get exactly the kind of quality care that they make. The sooner they get focused on this, the better."

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Cost-Saving Program Doesn't Work in Heart Procedures, Study Says

A program established in most states called a Certificate of Need -- designed to reduce both mortality rates and health care costs -- doesn't do either in the case of two important heart procedures, a study has found.

Dr. Vivian Ho, who studied Certificate of Need results for performing angioplasty and open heart surgery, found that the regulation produced only small benefits in open heart surgery and no benefit at all for angioplasty, which inserts a balloon or stent into a patient's blood vessels to open them up.

"For cardiac (heart) procedures, Certificate of Need doesn't create the kind of savings and reductions in mortality rates that policymakers thought it would achieve," Ho said in a Baylor College of Medicine news release. "I can't directly test for it, but it is my hypothesis that these regulations unintentionally increase the number of procedures performed," she added.

The reason? Ho theorizes that Certificate of Need regulations do contribute to reductions in the average cost per cardiac intervention, but the regulations also require a minimum of 200 cardiac procedures annually. So, many hospitals perform angioplasties and surgeries when medication might do just as well or better. This, in turn, raises the hospital costs unnecessarily, she concludes.

The study is published in the latest online edition of the International Journal of Health Care Finance and Economics.

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Automated Procedure to Detect West Nile in Blood, Organ Donors Approved

A system that automatically screens for West Nile virus in human donors' blood tissue and organs has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Called the Procleix WNV Assay on the Procleix TIGRIS system, the procedure is an automated way to detect the presence of West Nile virus in people who are donating an organ or plasma, the FDA says in a news release. However, the TIGRIS system will not be used for cord blood specimens or as an aid in the diagnosis of West Nile virus infection, the agency adds.

"The capability of full automation can reduce the potential for human error while accelerating donor screening and enhancing the safety of blood and tissues," said Dr. Jesse Goodman, the director of FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. "This is the latest step forward in what has been a very successful industry-government effort to keep blood safe from the emerging threat of West Nile virus."

West Nile virus can be fatal to humans. It is spread by mosquitoes and first began appearing in the U.S. human population in 1999. According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, severe symptoms can include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis.

Milder symptoms include fever, headache, and body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach and back. According to the FDA, between 1 and 3 million Americans have been infected with West Nile Virus. Since 1999, about 1,100 human fatalities have been reported.

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Illnesses at Oyster Festival Prompt FDA Investigation

An outbreak of flu-like symptoms in 25 people at a Maryland oyster festival in early February has prompted a U.S. government probe into whether the illnesses were caused by contaminated oysters from Texas,.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced late Friday that it is investigating whether the outbreak, believed to be caused by a norovirus-associated illness linked to eating raw oysters, came from oysters harvested in early February from San Antonio Bay, Tex., about 55 miles northeast of Corpus Christi. The Maryland festival was called the Bull and Oyster Event and was held Feb. 9.

This particular norovirus usually lasts for about 48 hours, and its symptoms include low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and a general sense of tiredness. It is not usually associated with more serious illnesses.

The FDA is asking anyone who may have experienced the gastrointestinal symptoms after the first weekend in February to contact his or her healthcare provider and the local health department. The oyster beds in question have been shut down while the investigation proceeds, the FDA says in a news release, and recalls have been issued for all oysters with the tag, "Gal 1, 2/2/07."

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Bush Orders Review of U.S. Military and Veteran Hospitals

U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday ordered a thorough review of conditions at all American veteran and military hospitals. The review was prompted by revelations about poor care for wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Bush will name a bipartisan commission to investigate whether the problems uncovered at Walter Reed are also present at other facilities, the Associated Press reported.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said it had fired Walter Reed commander Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman. The situation at Walter Reed was made public by The Washington Post, which found that bureaucratic issues prevented many troops from receiving adequate care and that some outpatients were enduring squalid living conditions, the AP reported.

The commission to be appointed by Bush will be separate from a panel named by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to study outpatient care at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

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FDA Outlines Approach to Informing Public About Drug Safety

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday issued final guidance on the agency's approach to communicating drug safety information to the public and the factors that influence when drug safety information is given to the public.

The FDA said the guidance affirms the agency's commitment to provide important drug safety information in a timely manner through: public health advisories; patient information sheets; health care professional information sheets; and alerts posted on public health advisories and patient and health care professional sheets. These are all available through the FDA Web site.

Drug product labeling is another method of providing the public and health professionals with important drug safety information, the FDA said.

"Our goal is to make emerging drug safety information available in a balanced, impartial manner so that health care professionals and patients can consider the information when making decisions about medical treatments despite uncertainties in the data," Dr. Steven Galson, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a prepared statement.

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