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Health Headlines - October 3

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
No Reports Of Illness Linked to D.C. Bacteria Scare

One week after bioterror sensors detected the presence of hazardous tularemia, or "rabbit fever," bacteria during a major rally on the national Mall in Washington, D.C., U.S. federal health officials told the Washington Post they have uncovered no reports of illness linked to the pathogen.

Protest organizers estimate that 300,000 anti-war protestors had gathered on the Mall Sept. 24, while the government places the number at about 100,000. On the same day, six separate bioterror sensors picked up traces of tularemia in the vicinity.

Federal investigators blame the presence of the bacteria on natural causes. "There is no known nexus to terror or criminal behavior. We believe this to be environmental," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke told the Post.

Tularemia causes flulike symptoms and is a potentially fatal, naturally occurring biological agent. The bacterium is currently on the Department of Homeland Security's "A list" of biohazards along with pathogens such as anthrax and smallpox. The U.S. military experimented with using the bacteria as a potential biological agent in the 1960s.

Because the crowd gathered at last weekend's protest came from all over the country, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are using a nationwide disease-reporting system to look for unusual occurrences of pneumonia-like illness in every state.

No cases of tularemia have been reported thus far, CDC spokesman Von Roebuck told the Post, but he noted that the bacteria has a typical incubation period of one to six days. "We're still in the incubation window, so we really don't know there were no cases," he added.

U.S. Approval Nears For Sale of Beef from Cloned Cows

U.S. federal officials are close to approving the sale of meat and milk from cloned cows and their offspring, experts from government, consumer groups and private industry told the Baltimore Sun Sunday.

Many expect the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take major steps soon toward allowing the sale of these products, subject to a 60-day period of public comment and scientific review.

Evidence has mounted supporting the safety of food from cloned cows, and FDA officials have said an announcement on the subject should be expected within a few weeks, the Sun reported. But consumer advocates remain concerned.

"A train wreck is coming," Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America told the newspaper. "It's not about the science. It's about how people see their food."

Because cloning is so expensive, most believe that beef and milk sold to consumers would come from the offspring of cloned cows, not the cloned cows themselves. "You're not producing them to eat -- you're producing them to breed," said Scott K. Davis, president of Start Licensing, a consortium of biotechnology companies that own licenses for cloning livestock.

The FDA has said that a draft report on the safety of products from cloned animals would be released along with any future announcement. The agency would probably also issue tentative rules governing the sale of milk and meat from cloned livestock. "We're aware that there are many social and ethical issues related to the cloning of animals," former FDA commissioner Lester Crawford said in September.

Hi-Tech Headband Allows Fully Paralyzed to Communicate

Japanese researchers say they've developed a headband that reads changes in brain blood flow to help individuals who are completely paralyzed regain some form of communication, the BBC reported Saturday.

Called "kokoro-gatari" (mind-talk) by its inventors, the device was designed for use by patients with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. Researchers say it has allowed these 'locked-in' patients to communicate simple 'yes' or 'no' answers to questions with about 80 percent accuracy.

"You may think the accuracy rate is 20 percent less than perfect but it is a big leap from zero for us," Kensuke Yanagita, of the Japanese ALS Association, told the BBC. "At least caregivers would be able to know [if] the patient is feeling good or not."

In ALS, patients gradually lose control of muscles governing movement, speech and other functions, but their intellectual capabilities remain unaffected. Brain blood flow is one of the few functions these patients do retain control over.

Patients control the headband by directing blood flow to the brain's executive thinking center, the frontal cortex. According to the researchers, they do this by simply doing arithmetic equations in their head or by trying to remember the words of a song. The headband emits infra-red rays which pick up on this increase in blood flow, and interprets it as a 'yes' to any outside question.

The device is expected to cost about $3,500 and be marketed in Japan by the end of this year.

Drug Plans Begin Medicare Marketing Blitz

Beginning Saturday, America's millions of Medicare beneficiaries can expect to be bombarded with advertising and other solicitations from health insurance companies extolling their own versions of the new Medicare drug prescription plan, set to kick in this January.

Over 40 options will be available to beneficiaries in almost every state, the Bush administration said Friday, with most plans differing slightly from the standard minimum benefit mandated by Congress.

According to the New York Times, under the government's new plan, Medicare recipients must pay a $250 deductible and are then responsible for 25 percent of annual drug costs ranging from $251 to $2,250. They are also responsible for 100 percent of the next $2,850 in expenses. Medicare will pay about 95 percent of expenses over $5,100, however. This leaves a 'coverage gap' for those will annual expenses between $2,251 and $5,099.

In many cases, annual deductibles offered by private Medicare-linked drug plans may be less than the $250 outlined by Congress and in most states insurers may also provide drug coverage for those in the coverage gap, further reducing expenses to beneficiaries.

Enrollment for the new Medicare drug plan begins Nov. 15. While this smorgasbord of choices can save consumers money, it could also make the process more confusing.

"It's mind-boggling," Oregon Medicare commissioner Cindy Becker told the Times. "If you try to explain the whole program at one time, people will be shellshocked. You have to give it to them in small doses." In her state alone, she said, 20 companies plan to offer 45 stand-alone plans with monthly premiums ranging from $6.93 to $64.99.
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