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Health Highlights: March 24 2006

Sodium Hyaluronate Effective for Chronic Shoulder Pain: Study Testicular Cells May Offer Alternative to Embryonic Stem Cells More Than 27 Million People Now in Medicare Drug Plan Mad Cow Disease Declining Worldwide: U.N. Cambodian Girl Dies of Bird Flu

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

Sodium Hyaluronate Effective for Chronic Shoulder Pain: Study

The drug sodium hyaluronate -- currently approved in the United States to treat knee osteoarthritis -- is also effective for chronic shoulder pain and may provide an alternative to Vioxx and other Cox-2 inhibitors, according to a Columbia University Medical Center study.

The six-month study of 602 patients found that the drug reduced chronic pain by nearly 50 percent in people with osteoarthritis of the shoulder. The findings were presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, in Chicago.

"Chronic shoulder pain is a common problem that cannot be adequately treated with existing FDA-approved therapies," study principal investigator Dr. Theodore Blaine, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia, said in a prepared statement.

"The results of the trial are very encouraging, and we hope will lead to this drug's approval as an effective therapy for thousands of suffering patients," Blaine said.

The FDA is currently reviewing the study's findings.

Vioxx and another Cox-2 painkiller, Bextra, were removed from the market after studies showed they increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.

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Testicular Cells May Offer Alternative to Embryonic Stem Cells

Testicular cells may provide an alternative source of cells -- instead of embryonic stem cells -- for growing cells to repair damaged tissue or organs, suggests a German study in the latest online issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers isolated stem cells from adult mouse testes that exhibit properties similar to embryonic stem (ES) cells, New Scientist reported. These testicle-derived cells -- called multipotent adult germline cells -- can be grown into all tissues of the mouse body.

It may be possible to use a simple testicular biopsy to extract these kinds of cells from human males to provide them with a source of genetically matched cells, the researchers said.

"We're in the process of doing this in humans and we're optimistic," research team leader Gerd Hasenfuss, of the Georg-August University of Gottingen, told New Scientist.

If it is possible, this approach would avoid the technical and ethical issues associated with generating stem cells from human embryos left over from fertility treatments. Those embryos have to be destroyed in the process of obtaining stem cells.

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More Than 27 Million People Now in Medicare Drug Plan

More than 27 million Medicare beneficiaries are now enrolled in the new prescription drug plan, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said.

Beneficiaries are signing up at the rate of 380,000 per week and more than 1.9 million signed up from mid-February to mid-March, a 25 percent increase over the number of people who signed up over the previous month.

Over the past four months, about 7.2 million people have enrolled individually for the new drug plan.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Thursday that the federal government is well on its way to achieving its goal of 28 million to 30 million enrollees in the first year. The enrollment deadline is May 15.

The new enrollment figures don't impress Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, an independent source of information and assistance for Medicare beneficiaries.

"Sixteen million Americans with Medicare still have no drug coverage -- if the administration's numbers released (Thursday) are accurate. Less than seven million Americans who were uninsured before the drug program was launched are newly insured. On the other hand, six million of the poorest and frailest Americans who lost Medicaid coverage on Jan. 1 now have inferior, less reliable drug coverage," Hayes said in a prepared statement.

He contended that many people who have enrolled in private drug plans under the new Medicare program are angry and dissatisfied.

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Mad Cow Disease Declining Worldwide: U.N.

Cases of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encepalopathy -- BSE) worldwide have declined at a rate of about 50 percent a year for the last three years, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In 2005, 474 animals died of BSE, compared to 878 in 2004 and 1,646 in 2003. Deaths from BSE in 1992 peaked at several tens of thousands, the Central Valley Business Times in California reported.

In 2005, there were five reported human deaths caused by variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE. All those deaths occurred in the United Kingdom, which has been hardest hit by BSE. The U.K. reported nine deaths from vCJD in 2004 and 18 deaths in 2003.

"It is quite clear the BSE is declining and that measures introduced to stop the disease are effective. But further success depends on our continuing to apply those measures worldwide," said Andrew Speedy, an FAO animal-production expert.

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Cambodian Girl Dies of Bird Flu

Initial tests indicate that bird flu killed a three-year-old girl in Cambodia as that country reported its first outbreak of the virus in two years.

Seven other people with possible symptoms of bird flu and 42 other people who had contact with them are currently being tested for the H5N1 virus.

A government official said the girl became ill at her home in the western province of Kompong Speu and died Tuesday in Phnom Penh, Agence France Presse reported. It's the fifth bird flu death in Cambodia since 2003. The last human bird flu outbreak in Cambodia was in March 2004.

At least 200 chickens in the dead girl's village have died since Sunday, said an agricultural ministry official. Earlier this month, bird flu was found in several ducks in eastern Cambodia.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed more than 100 people, mostly in Asia.

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