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Health Highlights: Sept. 8, 2006

Major Changes in NYC Healthcare Use After 9/11: Study Physical Cleansing May Ease Guilt Drug-Coated Stent Increases Blood Clot Risk Brain-Damaged Woman Displays Signs of Awareness New Study of Heart Failure Drug Ordered

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

Major Changes in NYC Healthcare Use After 9/11: Study

There was a sharp decline in healthcare usage in the New York City region during the three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but usage then rose above expected levels over the following months, concludes a study in the September issue of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.

Researchers analyzed health insurance claims from January 2000 to March 2002 for more than two million residents of the New York City region.

The greatest decline in healthcare usage in the weeks after Sept. 11 was among people who lived closest to the World Trade Center (WTC) site. For example, there was an overall 11 percent decline in visits to doctors' offices in the three weeks after 9/11, but a 15 percent decline in office visits by people who lived within a 10-mile radius of the WTC.

The decline in office visits in those first few weeks was likely related to disruptions in access to healthcare services or transportation, the researchers said. In addition, many people may have decided to postpone healthcare visits in order to take care of more immediate issues.

Insurance claims for mental health services were lower than expected for the six months after 9/11. The researchers suggested a number of possible reasons, such people taking advantage of free mental health services, or many not recognizing their need for mental health care. Mental stress may have also manifested as physical illness, which resulted in increased healthcare use for conditions such as chest pain, ulcers, fainting, and irregular heart beats.

Between October 2001 and March 2002, the number of visits to doctors' offices was more than 200,000 over expected levels, the study found.

In related news, residents living near the World Trade Center site said the U.S. federal government has ignored health problems they have suffered as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

At a meeting held Thursday, accountant Tom Goodkind, 52, said that while there are programs for rescue/cleanup workers, little has been done for area residents, the Associated Press reported.

"I don't think that any of these groups have looked at the children of our neighborhoods," Goodkind said.

"Collateral damage, that's what I feel like," said tenant group leader Diane Lapson.

Also on Thursday, the Bush administration said it would provide $75 million for health programs for sick Sept. 11 rescue/cleanup workers.

It's the first federal money for health problems related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Critics said the funds fall far short of expected expenses.

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Physical Cleansing May Ease Guilt

Lady Macbeth's determined attempts at spot removal weren't so crazy after all.

A University of Toronto study says that washing your hands or having a shower after impure thoughts or actions can help cleanse your subconscious mind of guilt, the Toronto Star reported.

"We showed that physical cleansing alleviates the upsetting consequences of unethical behavior and reduces threats to one's moral self-image," the study authors wrote. "Daily hygiene routines such as washing hands, as simple and benign as they may seem, can deliver a powerful antidote to threatened morality."

The study results are based on a series of experiments with 165 undergraduate students. The findings appear in the journal Science.

The researchers labeled this link between physical cleansing and easing of guilt the "Macbeth Effect," the Star reported. The label refers to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, who became obsessed with removing that "damned spot" of blood on her hands after her role in the murder of the Scottish king.

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Drug-Coated Stent Increases Blood Clot Risk

Patients with Boston Scientific Corp.'s newer drug-coated Taxus stent have a higher risk of potentially fatal blood clots than patients with older bare-metal stents, a company study finds.

The company reviewed clinical data collected from 3,500 patients and found those with the drug-coated stent had a statistically significant higher rate of clotting in a period beginning six months after surgery, the Associated Press reported.

But there was no increased risk of heart attack or death in patients with the drug-coated stent.

The findings were presented to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shortly after the analysis was completed in late June. The company met with FDA officials August 1 to discuss the findings, Boston Scientific spokesman Paul Donovan said Thursday. He said the findings will be published once complete data are available.

The Taxus stent is one of just two drug-coated stents on the U.S. market, the AP reported.

Stents are used to prop open coronary arteries after surgery to clear them of blockages. The drug coatings on the stents are meant to help prevent formation of scar tissue that can cause new blockages in the arteries.

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Brain-Damaged Woman Displays Signs of Awareness

Brain imaging scans showed clear signs of conscious awareness in a severely brain-damaged woman in a vegetative state, according to a U.K. study published Thursday in the journal Science.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) -- which reveals changes in activity in specific brain regions -- to scan the woman's brain five months after she was injured in a traffic accident, the New York Times reported.

When the researchers spoke sentences to the woman, the fMRI detected increased activity in brain areas associated with language, similar to what was seen in healthy people.

In another test, the researchers asked the woman to imagine playing tennis or walking through her house. This produced peaks in the her premotor and other brain areas that were also similar to brain responses in healthy people.

While the finding may raise the hopes of families of unresponsive, brain-damaged people, neurologists caution that the study involves only one patient, the Times reported.

And in a news release about the study, Science said that the finding "should not be used to generalize about all other patients in a vegetative state, particularly since each case may involve a different type of injury."

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New Study of Heart Failure Drug Ordered

A study on the safety and effectiveness of the heart failure drug Natrecor will be conducted by the Duke Clinical Research Institute at the request of Johnson & Johnson's Scios Inc. unit, which makes the drug.

Johnson & Johnson said the study, which will include about 7,000 patients, will likely begin enrolling participants in the first half of 2007, the Associated Press reported.

Natrecor sales suffered a sharp decline over the past year after some scientists said the drug may increase the risk of kidney problems and death.

Natrecor was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001 after tests showed the drug improved shortness of breath in patients with acute decompensated heart failure, where the heart suddenly stops pumping effectively.

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