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Health Highlights: March 20, 2002

Minority Health Care Lags Behind Whites: Report Geriatric Care Improves Well-Being, But Not Lifespan, Says Report Can Smallpox Be Treated? Implanted Defibrillators Save Lives OJ Seems to Lower Blood Pressure Japanese Woman, 114, World's Oldest Person

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

Minority Health Care Lags Behind Whites: Report

The quality of health care for minorities in America, for both routine services and serious conditions, falls short of the standard whites receive, according to a new report.

In looking at a broad range of studies, the report, "Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care," found that minorities are less likely than whites to undergo bypass surgery, receive appropriate heart medicine or receive kidney dialysis or transplants.

The report also found that minorities receive lower standards of cancer treatments and are less likely to receive the newest in AIDS treatments, reports the Associated Press.

The report was prepared by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, at the request of Congress.

Dr. David R. Williams of the University of Michigan, who was on the committee that prepared the report, termed the findings "a wake-up call for every health care professional. We have a health care system that is the pride of the world, but this report documents that the playing field is not even," according to the AP.

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Geriatric Care Improves Well-Being, But Not Lifespan, Says Report

Care from geriatric specialists may not make elderly people live longer, but it can at least make them feel much better after hospitalization.

That's the conclusion of a new study that is said to be the largest of its kind looking at the relatively new field of geriatric care, which focuses specifically on common conditions and special needs of the elderly.

In looking at a group of 1,388 patients age 65 and older, some of whom received geriatric care while hospitalized and after release and some who did not, researchers with the Veterans Affairs Department found that those who received the geriatric care had significantly less pain and much more improvement in their mental health up to a year after leaving the hospital, the Associated Press reports.

The benefits appeared to wane after a year, however, and they did not appear to help the patients to live longer.

Those receiving the special care were treated by teams that included a geriatrician, social workers and nurses.

The findings are published in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine.

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Can Smallpox Be Treated?

Although it's long been acknowledged that the only practical way to fight smallpox is with a vaccination, new research has raised hopes the disease can actually be treated, reports HealthDay.

Scientists say they've found a compound that may offer an effective oral treatment for smallpox, which was once the scourge of the Western world. This revelation is being taken very seriously, given an increased public concern over bioterrorism after last year's anthrax episodes.

Two new studies presented today at the International Conference on Antiviral Research in Prague report that an experimental compound appears to stop the growth of the virus in both tissue cultures and in mice.

One compound the researchers have identified is called cidofovir, which interferes with the virus' ability to reproduce. However, cidofovir must be given intravenously, a potential drawback if a large number of people were exposed to smallpox as in a bioterrorist attack.

So, according to study co-author Dr. Karl Y. Hostetler, the team found a way to change cidofovir into a compound that could be taken orally, and this became hexacyloxypropyl-cidofovir (HDP-CDV).

The researchers found that mice infected with cowpox, a close cousin to smallpox, could be completely protected by five daily oral doses of HDP-CDV. In a second study on tissue culture infected with smallpox itself, researchers found similarly encouraging results.

"After it's activated in the cell, it blocks the virus from copying itself," say the researchers. "The virus can't keep on replicating and dividing and making more and more copies."

"It's not a vaccine, but it provides a second line of defense," they add.

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Implanted Defibrillators Save Lives

A new study on the life-saving ability of an expensive medical device raises an issue that has become all too common in American medicine: money or lives, reports HealthDay.

An implanted defibrillator, which automatically delivers shocks to keep the heart beating, reduced the death rate by 31 percent in people who had suffered heart attacks, says a report presented yesterday at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology in Atlanta and published tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine.

However, an ICD, as it is also called, costs $20,000. Add in the surgery required and one night in the hospital to recover, and the price could double.

Money was not an issue for Vice President Dick Cheney, who had an ICD implanted last summer; the government paid for his operation. It is an issue for most other people and for the Medicare program, which has reduced its payments to doctors.

Dr. Arthur J. Moss, lead author and a professor of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, estimates the device could be used by 2.4 million Americans right now, with an estimated 240,000 new cases every year. The potential price tag: tens of billions of dollars.

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OJ Seems to Lower Blood Pressure

People who drank two glasses of orange juice a day for six weeks saw a surprising 10 mm Hg drop in their systolic blood pressure levels, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center tell MSNBC. The average drop in the systolic level, which is the top number in a blood pressure reading, was accompanied by an average 3.5 mm HG decline in the diastolic (bottom) reading, says study author Dr. Dennis Sprecher.

This is an enormous amount for two months," he tells MSNBC. "We were astonished."

The research involved 24 patients with clogged arteries, a condition that commonly leads to high blood pressure. Sprecher says the researchers aren't positive of the cause, though they theorize that the vitamin C and potassium found in orange juice both played a significant role.

Results of the study, which was funded by OJ producer Tropicana, were presented at this week's annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in Atlanta.

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Japanese Woman Claims Reign of World's Oldest Person

Kamato Hongo, age 114, is now the world's oldest known living person, the Guinness Book of Records tells the Associated Press.

Hongo, born Sept. 16, 1887, inherited the title this week after the death of 115-year-old Maud Farris-Luse in Coldwater, Mich.

The new record holder credits her longevity with avoiding stress, her love of traditional Japanese dancing, and downing a few shots of stiff sake every now and then.

Hongo has seven children, more than 20 grandchildren, and has outlived her eldest daughter, who died in her 90s two years ago, the AP says.

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