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Health Highlights: Nov. 21, 2002

Drunken-Driving Deaths Up in U.S. American Prescriptions Filled in Canada Baby Walker Toy Attachments Recalled Medicare Studies How to Help Elderly Quit Smoking Gene Scientists Plan New Form of Life FDA Panel OKs Stair-Climbing Wheelchair Turkey Day Marks GERD Awareness Week

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

Drunken-Driving Deaths Up in U.S.

Drunken driving in the United States killed 17,448 people last year, nearly 1,000 more than in 1999, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

That's why, in its 2001 "Rating the States" survey, MADD dropped the nation's drunken-driving grade to a "C" from a "C-plus" in 1999. Among individual states, California rated the highest with a B-plus, while Montana was the only state that failed, the Associated Press reports.

Four factors determined a state's grade: the number of alcohol-related accidents, trends in the number of deaths, state laws, and enforcement attempts.

From 1980, when MADD was formed, until 1993, drunken-driving deaths on U.S. roads fell by 40 percent. From 1994 to 1999, the figure held steady at around 16,500.

Faced with the 2001 increase, MADD President Wendy Hamilton said, "The war against drunk driving stalled."

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American Prescriptions Filled in Canada

A Canadian doctor, licensed to practice medicine in Minnesota, is saving some Americans hundreds of dollars in prescription drugs.

Dr. Craig Hildahl's medical practice straddles the U.S.-Canada border. He lives and works in Winnipeg, Manitoba, his hometown, but also keeps office hours at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., ABC News reports.

Hildahl writes prescriptions for his American patients and then faxes them to Winnipeg, where they're filled by Canadian pharmacies at prices 50 percent lower than in the United States. The drugs are then mailed to the patients.

Trevor Shore, one of Hildahl's U.S. patients, said he saves almost $3,500 a year on prescription drugs for himself and his wife.

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Baby Walker Toy Attachments Recalled

Kolcraft Enterprises Inc. of Chicago has voluntarily recalled about 410,000 of its baby walker toy attachments, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The flower toys on the baby walkers' trays can detach, leaving sharp edges exposed. Kolcraft has received 15 reports of injuries, including scratches to children's eyes, eyelids, faces and tongues.

The walkers are multi-colored and are equipped with either a detachable bar or a detachable music center. The recalled items were sold from December 2000 through October 2002 under the "Tot Rider" and "Carter's" brand names. They cost between $20 and $40.

Consumers should remove the detachable items immediately; they can contact the company regarding replacement toy bars or music center toy trays. Call Kolcraft toll-free at (888) 695-9988.

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Medicare Studies How to Help Elderly Quit Smoking

The U.S. Medicare program says it is funding a seven-state "demonstration" project designed to help elderly people quit smoking.

Even a person who has smoked for 30 years can reap the benefits of a smoking cessation program, the agency says. The two-year project, which began last month, is to test a series of reimbursement plans and smoking cessation programs to figure out which is most successful.

Participating states for the Medicare Stop Smoking Program include Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Wyoming. They were chosen based on geographic region and prevalence of older smokers.

Smoking is the single most preventable cause of disease and death in the United States, the agency says. And smokers 65 or older are the most likely to benefit from smoking cessation programs.

For more information, visit the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at www.cms.hhs.gov/healthyaging/1b.asp.

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Gene Scientists Plan New Form of Life

A famous scientist wants to create a new form of life at his Rockville, Md., laboratory.

It may sound like the plot of "Frankenstein," but it's actually the plan of genome pioneer J. Craig Venter, who says he's going to lead a group of scientists who hope to create a single-celled, partially man-made organism that contains the minimum number of genes to sustain life, reports the Washington Post.

Venter and Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, co-hatchers of the idea, hope the cell will begin to feed and divide, creating a unique pool of cells unlike any that currently exist. The pair say the cell will be intentionally crippled to make sure it can't infect people and will be programmed to die if it manages to escape its tightly controlled confines.

The project is funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. If the initial phase succeeds, the scientists want to model -- with the help of a computer -- every conceivable aspect of the biology of one organism. That could shed light on the "molecular definition of life," since all living cells bear a resemblance to each other, the Post reports.

The pair -- who concede worrying over whether their research could lead to a dangerous new class of biological weapons -- say they may be quite selective in publishing details of how their experiment progresses. Stay tuned.

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FDA Panel OKs Stair-Climbing Wheelchair

A unique four-wheel-drive wheelchair that's able to climb stairs and many an uneven surface has been approved by a panel of experts from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The iBOT 3000 Mobility System uses sensors and gyroscopes to balance on two wheels and climb or descend stairs. The panel voted unanimously to approve the new system, provided that it sells only with a doctor's prescription and that all users pass a strict training course, reports the Associated Press.

The FDA has granted the chair -- along with its hefty $29,000 price tag -- fast-track review, meaning a decision on whether to approve the device could come from the agency in a matter of a few months. The FDA isn't bound by its expert panels' decisions, but it usually follows them.

Renowned inventor Dean Kamen created the iBOT, with its four same-sized wheels that rotate over each other to navigate steps. The device also lifts on only two of its wheels, allowing a seated person to rise high enough to shake someone's hand or reach for an object.

Kamen has licensed the product to Independence Technology, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

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Turkey Day Marks GERD Awareness Week

If heartburn inevitably follows next week's annual gorge-fest of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, you may have a more serious problem to worry about -- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, more commonly known as GERD.

GERD affects more than 21 million Americans, and is caused by an abnormal backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus. But it's a very treatable condition, says the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, which is marking next week as the fourth annual GERD Awareness Week.

The foundation suggests you see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Significant heartburn more than once a week;
  • Heartburn that occurs mostly in the evening, or which wakes you up at night;
  • Heartburn coupled with difficult or painful swallowing;
  • Sour or bitter-tasting fluid that enters the mouth from the throat;
  • Frequent belching.
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