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Health Highlights: Dec. 19, 2006

Survey Finds High Satisfaction With Medicare Drug Benefit President Bush Signs Three Health-Related Bills Skin Cancer Tumor Removed From Laura Bush Vaccine Kills Malaria Parasite in Mosquitoes FDA Probing Brain Infection Deaths of Lupus Patients Taking Rituxan Norovirus Suspected in Olive Garden Outbreak

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

Survey Finds High Satisfaction With Medicare Drug Benefit

Overall satisfaction with the U.S. Medicare drug benefit remains high, although many people view it as too complicated, suggests a national survey released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The survey of 718 seniors enrolled in a Medicare drug plan also found that few respondents intend to switch plans for 2007. The survey was conducted Nov. 9-19. Among the key findings:

  • One in 20 respondents (5 percent) said he or she expects to switch plans for 2007, while 66 percent said they did not expect to switch and 29 percent said they were uncertain.
  • Three in four respondents (76 percent) said their experiences with their plans have been positive, including 46 percent who said their experiences have been "very positive."
  • About one in four respondents (23 percent) who have used their plans said they'd had a problem with the new benefit, including 12 percent who said they'd had a major problem.
  • Nearly three quarters (73 percent) said the Medicare drug benefit is "too complicated." The survey also found that 39 percent of respondents said there are too many plans, 15 percent said there are too few plans, and 32 percent said there are the right number of plans.
  • Overall, 42 percent of the respondents said they had a favorable view of the drug benefit, while 34 percent said they had an unfavorable view of it. That level of favorability is the highest recorded in a series of 13 surveys conducted since he Medicare drug law was enacted in 2003.


President Bush Signs Three Health-Related Bills

An autism bill that increases U.S. government funding for the disorder by 50 percent was one of three health-related bills signed Tuesday by President Bush.

The second bill provides more equal sharing of AIDS care and treatment money between cities and rural areas and southern states.

The third bill creates a government unit to manage federal response to a bioterrorism attack or a bird flu pandemic, the Associated Press reported.

The autism bill authorizes $945 million over five years for autism research, screening and treatment. Autism is diagnosed in about one in 166 American children.

The AIDS bill introduces updates, the first since 2000, designed to spread federal funding more equally around the country, the AP reported.

The third bill creates a new agency to supervise the development of equipment and medicine to deal with a bioterrorism attack or a bird flu pandemic. The new agency will be part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Skin Cancer Tumor Removed From Laura Bush

First Lady Laura Bush had a skin cancer tumor removed from her right shin in early November. The tumor was squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer, the Associated Press reported.

The cancer was detected in late October after doctors did a biopsy on a sore that was not healing. The tumor was removed under local anesthetic. The surgery site is healing fine and Mrs. Bush's regular schedule has not been affected, said her press secretary Susan Whitson.

The situation was not revealed publicly at the time because Mrs. Bush decided it was a private matter. The White House acknowledged the surgery Monday after reporters noticed that Mrs. Bush had a bandage below her right knee, the AP reported.

Squamous cell carcinoma affects the middle layer of skin and is more likely than basal cell cancer -- the most common form of skin cancer -- to spread to other locations. Because of this, patients with squamous cell carcinoma need to have regular checks of the lymph nodes near the tumor site, according to information on the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Web site.

Most cases of basal and squamous cell carcinoma are highly curable. Together, these skin cancers account for less than 0.1 percent of U.S. cancer deaths, says the American Cancer Society. Melanoma skin cancer is much more deadly.


Vaccine Kills Malaria Parasite in Mosquitoes

An experimental vaccine designed to kill the deadly malaria parasite inside mosquitoes has been developed by U.S. government scientists.

The vaccine has only been tested in mice, where it proved effective. The findings appear in this week's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The vaccine would not provide people with immunity against malaria. Instead, it's meant to destroy the malaria parasite inside a mosquito after the insect bites a vaccinated human. This approach could prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria, Agence France Presse reported.

"It's a transmission-blocking vaccine that attempts to get rid of the parasite reservoir inside its mosquito host," said Owen Rennert, scientific director of the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Malaria kills up to three million people a year, many of them children in tropical regions of Africa, Asia and South and Central America. So far, attempts to create a vaccine against malaria have been unsuccessful or proven only partially effective, AFP reported.


Brain Infection Deaths of Lupus Patients Taking Rituxan Probed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking into the deaths of two lupus patients killed by a rare viral brain infection called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) while taking the drug Rituxan.

The agency said it is "working to gather more information about Rituxan and PML and to strengthen the warnings about PML in the Rituxan product label."

The FDA also warned doctors to watch for PML symptoms in patients taking Rituxan, including dizziness, vision problems and difficulty talking, the Boston Globe reported.

Rituxan has FDA approval for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but doctors can use their discretion to prescribe it "off-label" for lupus and other conditions.

The two companies that co-market Rituxan, Biogen Idec Inc. of Massachusetts and Genentech Inc. of California, sent a letter to doctors about the deaths of the two lupus patients taking the drug. The companies also posted a letter on Genetech's Web site to alert doctors about 23 reported cases of PML in non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients taking Rituxan, the Globe reported.

The drug's label already carries a warning about PML in that group of patients.


Norovirus Suspected in Olive Garden Outbreak

Norovirus was the likely cause of an outbreak of flu-like illness last week that affected about 370 people who ate at an Olive Garden restaurant in Indianapolis.

Marion County Health Department spokesman John Althardt said that laboratory tests detected norovirus in three of the restaurant workers and in one patron, the Indianapolis Star reported.

"A norovirus is a highly contagious, hard to eliminate virus that is associated with restaurants, cruise ships and other settings where people are consuming food that has been prepared or handled by others," Althardt said.

"What we have asked the Olive Garden to do is to thoroughly clean the restaurant with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water, to cover every nook and cranny of the restaurant," he said.

The restaurant was shut down last Friday and has been cleared to reopen Tuesday at 4 p.m., the Star reported.

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