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Health Highlights: July 25, 2006

Digitalis Safe for Diastolic Heart Failure Patients: Study Medicare Drug Plan Fuels Growth in Prescriptions No Proof 12-Step Programs Are Best: Study CDC to Offer Free Colon Cancer Tests to Poor States Aid Stem-Cell Work Despite Bush Veto

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

Digitalis Safe for Diastolic Heart Failure Patients: Study

Contrary to widespread belief, the heart drug digitalis is relatively safe for patients with diastolic heart failure, according to a U.S. study published online Tuesday in the journal Circulation.

Researchers analyzed data from 988 patients, who were tracked for an average of 37 months, and concluded that digitalis had no effect on death from heart failure or any cause, or on hospitalizations related to heart failure or any cause.

The drugs used in the study were provided by drug maker Glaxo Welcome.

In people with diastolic heart failure, the heart muscle is stiff and unable to take in enough blood with each beat. In systolic heart failure, the heart muscle is too weak to effectively pump blood out into the body.

Digitalis has been shown to offer a number of benefits to systolic heart failure patients, including improving symptoms, exercise tolerance, quality of life, and heart muscle contraction. It also helps control atrial fibrillation, the most common kind of heart rhythm abnormality in patients with heart failure.

"However, its use in diastolic heart failure has been discouraged due to concerns based on small, anecdotal studies that it might precipitate early death," study co-author Dr. Dalane Kitzman, professor of cardiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

"Our findings that it is relatively safe in this disorder allow it to be prescribed if needed for atrial fibrillation, and to be evaluated further to see if it has other benefits, such as improving symptoms, as it does for systolic heart failure," Kitzman said.

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Medicare Drug Plan Fuels Growth in Prescriptions

While the new Medicare prescription drug plan has benefited many seniors, it's been a boon for some drug manufacturers as well.

For instance, Pfizer Inc.'s anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor is one of the biggest winners, according to a story in the Boston Globe. The newspaper examined data from IMS Health, a health-care information company that rated Lipitor the top-selling drug covered by the new prescription plan -- called Part D -- that took effect Jan. 1. In the first six months of 2006, American sales of Lipitor rose 7 percent, to $3.83 billion, from a year ago. Pfizer estimated that Part D contributed to nearly half of that growth, the newspaper said.

While some critics have said Part D cut rebates that drug manufacturers had been paying, industry lobbyists call the program a success, the newspaper said.

"Medicare drug coverage has improved the lives of millions of seniors with 90 percent of today's Medicare beneficiaries now receiving drug coverage," said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "That's the windfall we should be talking about."

Since Jan. 1, an estimated 38.2 million Americans have signed up for the Part D program, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And through June 23, the program had paid for 194.3 million prescriptions, about 12.4 percent of the 1.56 billion prescriptions filled during that time frame, according to IMS Health, the Globe said.

Conversely, the number of prescriptions for which consumers paid cash dropped to 11.5 percent, from 12.2 percent in 2005, the newspaper said.

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No Proof 12-Step Programs Are Best: Study

Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs do not reduce the severity of addictions any more than other interventions, a new study concludes.

A review of eight trials involving 3,417 men and women ages 18 and older, led by Marica Ferri of the Italian Agency for Public Health in Rome, found no evidence that 12-step interventions were any more or less successful in increasing the number of people who stayed in treatment or reducing the number who relapsed after being sober, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

In some of the studies reviewed, AA was compared with other psychological treatments including cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and relapse-prevention therapy. The group was also compared with other spiritual and nonspiritual 12-step programs. Scientists found no proof that any of the therapies were superior to any other intervention in reducing alcohol dependence or alcohol-related problems.

The findings were published in The Cochrane Library, a journal devoted to systematic reviews of health care interventions.

An Alcoholics Anonymous staffer told the Times that the organization did not comment on published studies of the program, but some experts said the study conclusions would not change how the programs are run.

John F. Kelly, a clinical psychologist at Harvard, said he still believed that AA and other 12-step programs were effective. The programs are not cure-alls, Kelly told the newspaper, "but I would say at a minimum, they help."

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CDC to Offer Free Colon Cancer Tests to Poor

A government-funded project is offering free colon cancer testing for the poor in five states as part of a new push to screen for the nation's No. 2 cancer killer.

Some 148,600 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year, and more than 55,000 will die, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Up to 60 percent of those deaths could be prevented if everyone over age 50 underwent routine screening, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, yet just over half get tested. Black Americans are especially at risk, the agency said.

The CDC's new free-screening project will be offered in Suffolk County, N.Y., Baltimore, St. Louis, Seattle/King County, Wash., and statewide in Nebraska. Currently, Medicare pays for colorectal screening, but that federal insurance program is for people 65 and older.

If the screening project is successful, the CDC said the program may one day be expanded nationwide, the AP reported.

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States Aid Stem-Cell Work Despite Bush Veto

Several U.S. governors have committed state money to controversial stem cell research, despite President George Bush's veto of legislation that hoped to expand federally financed projects. Stem cell research has become a hot-button campaign issue in elections across the country, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Bush supporter, cited the veto as he lent $150 million from the state's general fund last Thursday to pay for grants to stem cell scientists. In Illinois, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich offered $5 million for similar grants in his state. Before those announcements, the Times reported, the only money available was $72 million that five states had allocated for the research and $90 million that the U.S. National Institutes of Health had provided since 2001 for work on a restricted number of stem cell lines.

Within hours of Bush's veto last Wednesday, funding for stem cell research became key issues in elections in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee. In many cases, Republican moderates, mindful of polls showing public support for expanded stem cell research and expecting attacks from Democrats, sought to distinguish their positions from the president's, the Times reported.

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