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Health Highlights: Dec. 12, 2004

Psoriasis Cause May Have Been Found Medicare Prescription Drug Hotline Gives Many Wrong Answers Manufacturers Move to Sell Cholesterol Drugs Over the Counter Hospital Test: Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Was Poisoned

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

Psoriasis Cause May Have Been Found

It may only be effective in a laboratory mouse study so far, but researchers say they may have found the cause of psoriasis, a persistent and disfiguring skin condition that may affect as much as two percent of the world's population.

A Dec. 12 news release from The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston says scientists have identified a protein called STAT3 that initiates psoriasis when the body's immune system is activated to fight off a wound, burn or some other invasion.

The scientists actually developed a skin cream that cured the itching, redness and scaling that psoriasis caused in the study mice. The ointment can also prevent recurrence, they said.

John DiGiovanni, Ph.D., the study's lead investigator and director of M.D. Anderson's Department of Carcinogenesis, said in the news release, "We may have found an entirely new treatment option for psoriasis." The study appears in the January 2005 issue of the journal Nature Medicine.

Until now, the cause of psoriasis has remained a mystery. According to the news release, patches of skin that become inflamed are most often the scalp, elbows, knees, and lower back. Treatments have been most effective in slowing down its progress, but nothing exists to cure psoriasis, DiGiovanni says.

"We may have found the link - the change in keratinocytes [skin cells that make keratin, the substance that comprises hair, nails and skin] that cooperates with the immune system cells necessary for development of human psoriasis."

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Medicare Prescription Drug Hotline Gives Many Wrong Answers

When you dial the hotline for information on Medicare's new prescription drug program -- 1-800-MEDICARE -- you might get the wrong answer or no answer at all, almost 40 percent of the time.

That's what Congressional researchers say they've found, according to a story in the New York Times. The newspaper says investigators from the Government Accountability Office got the wrong answer 29 percent of the time or no answer at all 10 percent of the time when they called for information about new prescription drug cards and benefits. The volume of calls is expected to increase in the coming year, the newspaper said, as elderly citizens examine all the options available to them under the prescription drug program passed by Congress last year.

And that's not the only bad news. In a separate report, the Times said, government investigators found an abysmal result when doctors called the Medicare billing office to request information on procedures. Out of 300 calls, only 4 percent of the answers were complete and correct, the newspaper cites investigators as saying. About 54 percent of the answers were wrong, and 42 percent were incomplete.

The government's answer? "We were faced with an unprecedented volume of calls about a new part of the Medicare program that required new training efforts and many new customer service representatives," Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the newspaper. "We believe we responded as well as we reasonably could, given the unique and demanding circumstances."

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Manufacturers Move to Sell Cholesterol Drugs Over the Counter

During the past decade, the federal government allowed a number of prescription antacid medications such as Zantac and Pepcid to be sold without a prescription. Now, it may be time for the same thing to happen to cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Apparently prompted by continuing research that anti-cholesterol drugs work well in preventing heart attacks, and a patent that expires in 2006, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. has announced is will ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to let it sell its prescription medicine, Pravachol, over the counter.

And another major pharmaceutical firm, Merck & Co., announced at the same time Friday that the FDA had already agreed to review a similar request in January for its cholesterol drug, Mevacor.

The Associated Press reports that the two firms may be following a trend established earlier this year when Britain allowed Merck's other cholesterol drug, Zocor, to be sold without a prescription. However, the FDA rejected similar efforts to have anti-cholesterol drugs approved in 2000, the wire service reports.

One of the difficulties in using anti-cholesterol drugs is that they can mask other heart-threatening problems, such as high blood pressure, and this can prevent people from seeing their doctors on a regular basis, an expert told the AP.

David Moskowitz, who heads the health care research group at the financial firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, is quoted by the wire service as saying patients on cholesterol-lowering drugs should be monitored carefully for the proper dose so they don't develop serious side effects. "I don't think these are going to be easy approvals," he told the AP.

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Hospital Test: Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Was Poisoned

In a development that reads more like a Robert Ludlum espionage novel than a news story, a hospital in Vienna has confirmed that a Ukrainian politician seeking his country's highest office has been poisoned.

The International Herald Tribune reports that Viktor A. Yushchenko, the Ukrainian presidential candidate, had been poisoned with dioxin, a cancer-causing defoliant banned many years ago in the United States. For months, there had been public speculation about Yushchenko's appearance. Initially highly photogenic, his face had become pockmarked and puffy, and he was plagued by abdominal pains.

The newspaper quotes Dr. Michael Zimpfer, chief of the Rudolfinerhaus hospital where the politician had gone for treatment, as saying Yushchenko's disease "has been caused by a case of poisoning by dioxin." Zimpfer said Yushchenko's blood dioxin level was "more than 1,000 times" the upper limits of normal and that his initial severe abdominal pain suggested that he had eaten the poison. He also strongly intimated to the Herald Tribune that Yushchenko's condition was not a case of simple food poisoning or inadvertent contact poisoning.

Yushchenko repeated his charge that his condition was the result of political reprisal since he challenged the outgoing Ukrainian president's chosen successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. The Ukraine Supreme Court threw out the results from a November election won by Yanukovich and ordered a runoff between Yushchenko and Yanukovich on Dec. 26. Yushchenko's political opponents had decried the poisoning claims, saying instead that he had eaten bad sushi or had drunk too much, the newspaper reported.

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