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Health Highlights: Feb. 21, 2002

CDC Director Resigns Government Backs Lifesaving Ability of Mammograms Parents, Breathe Easy: Asthma Inhalers Safe for Kids Women With Diabetes Generally Poorer, Less Educated: CDC More Americans Drinking Fluoridated Water Medicare's Improper Payments Run In Billions, Says Audit Government Nursing Home Site Allegedly Ignores Violations

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

CDC Director Resigns

After scrambling to better prepare the nation against bioterrorist threats following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now lost its director.

Dr. Jeffrey Koplan announced his resignation from the post today. Koplan did not state why he was resigning, but said only that he would be pursuing other opportunities after almost three decades of serving the government, according to the Associated Press.

Koplan's resignation becomes effective March 31. He was hired as CDC director in 1998.

Despite criticism over the agency's response to last fall's anthrax attacks, Koplan cited the handling of the anthrax incidents and the efforts to fight bioterrorism as two of the highlights of his career as director.

The CDC had been criticized by some members of Congress for not responding quickly enough to the anthrax attacks, which killed five people.

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Government Backs Lifesaving Ability of Mammograms

If you're one of millions of women confused by the recent debate over the merits of mammography, the news is good: Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson today announced the government's continued backing of regular screening mammograms as a lifesaving tool, reports HealthDay.

"The federal government makes a clear recommendation to women on mammography: If you are 40 or older, get screened for breast cancer with mammography every one to two years," Thompson said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Although acknowledging that more advanced methods of detecting breast tumors may become available in the future, he declared mammography "a strong and important tool in the early detection of breast cancer. The early detection of breast cancer can save lives."

This position was endorsed by Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), who added, "Mammography remains an important part of our effort to save lives through early detection."

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Parents, Breathe Easy: Asthma Inhalers Safe for Kids

Do inhalers designed to stop asthma attacks send kids spinning out of control?

Not according to a new study from British researchers that found no such link, despite parental stories of hyperactivity and children "climbing the walls," reports HealthDay.

The study appears in the March issue of the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Researchers said they were struck by how parents of children with asthma consistently reported that using the most commonly used inhaler, salbutamol, affected the child's behavior.

They studied 19 boys and girls, aged 2 to 5, who were taking salbutamol-based inhalers. All the parents had reported hyperactivity in their children after they used the inhalers in everyday life.

The team scored each child on a rating scale for hyperactivity, then tested the children with doses from a salbutamol inhaler or a placebo inhaler.

Despite the parental belief that the inhalers affect behavior, the ratings revealed no significant effect on activity levels from the salbutamol dose.

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Women With Diabetes Generally Poorer, Less Educated: CDC

Women with lower levels of education and in lower income brackets are twice as likely to suffer from diabetes, according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a random nationwide telephone survey conducted in 2000, the CDC found that about 28 percent of women with diabetes did not complete high school, compared to only 12 percent of women without the disease, the Associated Press reports.

In addition, only 22 percent of women without diabetes reported an income of less than $25,000 per year, compared with 40 percent of women with diabetes.

The CDC said women's higher income levels probably translate to better access to medical care, and their education levels probably play a role in making better decisions about their personal health.

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More Americans Drinking Fluoridated Water

Almost two out of three Americans who drink public water are now getting ample fluoride from the tap, reports HealthDay.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the rise today, saying that 162 million Americans who are served by public systems now have the added mineral, which reduces the risk of cavities and other dental problems.

The new report, appearing in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, calls the rise "modest progress." It says 65.8 percent of the population on public systems drink fluoridated water; in 1992, the rate was 62.1 percent. The report doesn't count private sources of water, such as wells.

Although the dental community has long embraced fluoride, which promotes the growth of strong teeth and prevents their decay, some community groups have tried to keep the element out of the water supply. Critics claim fluoride is linked to a range of health problems, from high blood lead levels to early menstruation.

At high doses, fluoride can harm tooth enamel, but most scientists dismiss the more serious claims as fear-mongering.

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Medicare's Improper Payments Run In Billions, Says Audit

The government is shelling out billions of dollars in Medicare expenses - - that are mistakes.

An audit by the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department of the agency shows that, out of a total of $191.8 billion in payments, an estimated $12.1 billion of Medicare funds went to improper expenses last year.

A bulk of those payments reportedly went towards beneficiaries who had been unnecessarily hospitalized, the Associated Press reports.

Other payment errors included cases where there were no medical records to support claims, or services were miscoded for a higher level of care than they should have been.

On the light side, the improper payment figures have improved since six years ago, when the first such assessments were made. At that time, an estimated $23.2 billion was dispensed in improper payments.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said today that the government is working to make its rules and regulations "more understandable" to doctors and providers.

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Government Nursing Home Site Ignores Violations, Democrats Allege

A government Web site that ranks 16,000 U.S. nursing homes based on health-code compliance omits a huge number of violations, House Democrats allege.

The "Nursing Home Compare" site, maintained by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, allegedly includes only violations found during annual state inspections, the Associated Press says, citing a report released today by Democratic members of the House Government Reform Committee. The site omits tens of thousands of inspections prompted by formal consumer complaints, the report alleges.

More than 25,000 violations of federal health standards cited between October 2000 and December 2001 are excluded from the site, the report alleges. During the same period, 871 nursing homes were cited for violations that had the potential to cause immediate death or serious injury. More than half of these "immediate jeopardy" violations allegedly are not mentioned on the site, which receives 100,000 visits a month.

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