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Health Highlights: April 27, 2006

Don't Reuse Disposable Masks During Flu Pandemic: Report Kentucky First, Mississippi Worst in State Medical Board Ranking Discovery Could Lead to New Alzheimer's Treatment New Policy Protects Medicare Beneficiaries' Drug Coverage Bird-Flu Virus Spreading Quickly: U.N. Expert

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

Don't Reuse Disposable Masks During Flu Pandemic: Report

The reuse of disposable medical masks during a flu pandemic is not recommended because there's no simple, reliable way to decontaminate them in order to ensure they can be safely used more than once, says a report from the U.S. Institute of Medicine.

Disposable masks are made of a mesh of fibers, which can trap harmful particles. Such a hazardous buildup can't be cleaned out or disinfected without damaging the fibers or other components of the mask, such as the strap or nose clip.

The report also said that it is possible to reuse an N95 respirator by following a series of steps to protect it from contamination. However, since the reliability of any face coverings against flu is unclear, wearers should not risk unnecessary exposure.

"Respiratory protection through the use of face coverings is only one of the many strategies that will be needed to slow or halt a pandemic outbreak of influenza, and people should not engage in activities that would increase their risk of exposure to flu just because they have a mask or respirator," report committee co-chair John C. Bailar, professor emeritus, University of Chicago, said in a prepared statement.

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Kentucky First, Mississippi Worst in State Medical Board Ranking

Kentucky's state medical board gets top marks, while Mississippi's is at the bottom, according to an annual ranking released Thursday by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

The rankings are based on data from the Federation of State Medical Boards on the number of disciplinary actions taken against doctors from 2003-2005. In 2005, there were 3,255 serious disciplinary actions taken by state medical boards, a 1.2 percent decrease from the 3,296 in 2004.

The three-year state disciplinary rates ranged from 9.08 serious actions per 1,000 doctors in Kentucky to 1.62 per 1,000 in Mississippi. That's a 5.6-fold difference between the best and the worst.

Rounding out the top five were: Alaska (8.49), Wyoming (8.19), Ohio (6.33), and Arizona (6.20).

Rounding out the bottom five were: Delaware (1.63), Minnesota (1.65), Wisconsin (1.72), and Nevada (2.03).

"These data again raise serious questions about the extent to which patients in many of these states with poorer records of serious doctor discipline are being protected from physicians who might well be barred from practice in states with boards that are doing a better job of disciplining physicians," Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said in a prepared statement.

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Discovery Could Lead to New Alzheimer's Treatment

A protein called TPM21 that occurs naturally in the brain can stop Alzheimer's disease, according to new research in the journal Nature.

The finding could lead to the development of a "clean and direct" treatment for Alzheimer's within the next decade, said University of Toronto researcher Dr. Peter St. George-Hyslop.

"This is the starting block of something that could be tremendous. This could be the blueprint for the development of a drug to treat the disease," he said.

St. George-Hyslop helped lead the international team that found that TPM21 blocks the creation of the destructive neurotoxin called Abeta (also known as beta-amyloid peptide), which is responsible for the onset of Alzheimer's, the Toronto Star reported.

Numerous attempts have been made to block the production of Abeta, but those therapies have been too coarse in their actions and have resulted in intolerable side effects, St. George-Hyslop said.

"We now have a clean and direct way to inhibit the production of Abeta ... with potentially no side effects," he said.

However, he noted that the research is still in the early stages and a drug to mimic the antitoxin effects of TPM21 will likely take at least five years to develop, the Star reported.

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New Policy Protects Medicare Beneficiaries' Drug Coverage

A new policy that protects Medicare beneficiaries against the sudden loss of coverage for drugs they're taking under the prescription-drug program was announced Wednesday by the Bush administration.

The move addresses one of the major criticisms of the new Medicare drug benefit, The New York Times reported.

Under the new policy, insurers can still make changes to their lists of covered drugs (formularies) but, if they impose new restrictions or drop drugs from that list, they must exempt beneficiaries currently taking those drugs.

"No beneficiaries will be subject to a discontinuation or reduction in coverage of the drugs they are currently using," the new policy states.

In other news, out-of-pocket costs have increased for about 20 percent of enrollees in the new prescription-drug plan and some people have had to reduce or eliminate medications, a move that can harm their health.

Most of the more than 30 million people enrolled in the program are saving money. However, two recent surveys suggest that many seniors and disabled people are paying more for their drugs, USA Today reported.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted between April 6-11 found that 55 percent of 154 seniors enrolled in the plan said it would save them money, while 19 percent said they would break even, and another 19 percent said it would cost them more.

Another survey, conducted March 15-20 for the Medicare Rx Education Network, found that 59 percent of 201 enrolled seniors saved money, but 23 percent did not, USA Today reported.

Many low-income seniors and disabled people are paying more under the new plan, acknowledge Medicare officials. They're asking drug companies and states to continue providing assistance to poor people who require expensive drugs.

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Bird-Flu Virus Spreading Quickly: U.N. Expert

About 200 people are known to have been infected with the H5N1 bird-flu virus, but it's probably affected "many, many more," Dr. David Nabarro, the U.N. official in charge of tracking the virus, said Wednesday at a meeting on how to inform people worldwide about the threat posed by the virus.

He said the virus seems to be spreading quickly. It has been detected in 45 countries, has killed more than 100 people, and has led to the deaths of about 200 million birds, impoverishing millions of small poultry farmers, the Associated Press reported.

Nabarro noted that between 2003 and 2005, the H5N1 virus was reported in 15 countries. In the first four months of 2006, it has moved rapidly to 30 new countries.

Part of the problem is years of neglect of veterinary services in many countries, he said.

"The result of that is we are susceptible to diseases within animals that can jump into humans," Nabarro said. He noted that "70 percent of emerging diseases of a communicable kind in our world today come from animals."

He's working with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health to improve veterinary services, the AP reported.

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