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Health Highlights: Dec. 23, 2004

Medicare Will Pay for Smokers' Counseling Bayer Pulls Plug on Clinical Trial for Stroke Drug Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Use 'Sonar' to Destroy Other Cells FDA Rebukes Crestor Ad Fewer Nursing Home Residents in Physical Restraints

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

Medicare Will Pay for Smokers' Counseling

The U.S. government, apparently seeing more benefit in prevention than treatment, has announced that the Medicare program will pay for counseling to help people quit smoking.

Most of those who will be eligible for the counseling include older Medicare beneficiaries who smoke and have smoking-related diseases or take certain medications, the Associated Press reported.

The coverage for the counseling will begin no later than the end of March 2005. Medicare will cover the cost of up to four counseling sessions for smokers. If that isn't effective, Medicare may pay for a second round of counseling.

Many patient advocates and health care providers applauded the decision, although some wanted more extensive coverage that would cover the cost of nicotine-replacement programs and some prescription drugs.

"Quitting is hard, but counseling is a proven means of helping smokers succeed. It's cost effective and can double the chances of success," John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, told the AP.

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Bayer Pulls Plug on Clinical Trial for Stroke Drug

Pharmaceutical firm Bayer has pulled out of a clinical trial for the drug Repinotan, designed to treat stroke patients.

The company said the decision was made because the results of a recently completed Phase IIb clinical trial of the drug fell short of expectations, Agence France-Presse reported.

However, Bayer isn't going to give up on Repinotan, which belongs to the neuroprotectant class of drugs.

"While ending the development of Repinotan in strokes, we are still considering other options for the future of the compound," said a company statement.

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Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Use 'Sonar' to Locate Other Cells

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have a sonar-like system that enables them to zero in on and destroy other bacteria or normal cells, says a study in the Dec. 24 issue of the journal Science.

This discovery may help explain how some bacteria know when to produce a toxin that causes infections to become more severe. The study findings may also help scientists develop new ways to inhibit such toxins.

"Blocking or interfering with a bacterium's 'detection' mechanism should prevent toxin production and limit the severity of infection," study lead author Michael Gilmore, director of research at the Schepens Eye Research Institute and professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

Gimore and his colleagues studied a bacterium called Enterococcus faecalis, which is responsible for many hospital-acquired infections. They found that this bacterium produced toxins whenever it was close to another cell, such as a human blood cell.

"These bacteria are actively probing their environment for enemies or food. Based on whether or not they 'see' other cells, they make the toxin appropriately," Gilmore said.

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FDA Rebukes Crestor Ad

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has told drug maker AstraZeneca to withdraw a print ad that touts the safety of the cholesterol drug Crestor. The FDA says the claims in the ad are misleading.

In a letter dated Dec. 21, the FDA wrote: "The 'patient safety' print ad makes false or misleading safety claims that minimize the risks associated with Crestor, thereby suggesting that Crestor is safer than has been demonstrated by substantial evidence or substantial clinical experience."

An AstraZeneca spokesperson said the ad was meant to run for a only a short time and is no longer being used, the Associated Press reported.

After the ad appeared in the Washington Post on Nov. 23, Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the consumer group Public Citizen filed a complaint with the FDA. Wolfe has been trying to have Crestor withdrawn from the market because he's concerned about the rate of liver problems associated with the drug.

Crestor belongs to a family of drugs called statins. The prescribing information for Crestor includes warnings about possible liver damage or failure, the AP reported.

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Fewer Nursing Home Residents in Physical Restraints

The use of restraints on residents of U.S. nursing homes has declined by nearly 25 percent in the last two years, according to a report released Tuesday by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In 2004, 7.5 percent of nursing home residents were in physical restraints, down from 9.7 percent in 2002, the report said. That means that about 35,000 fewer nursing home patients are in physical restraints on any given day.

The use of restraints can result in patients becoming weak, developing bedsores, and losing the ability to go the toilet on their own.

The report also said that fewer short- and long-term nursing home residents reported being in pain in 2004, dropping 11 percent and 38 percent, respectively, since 2002. However, there was a 2 percent increase in the number of patients with bedsores, the Associated Press reported.

There are 16,400 nursing homes in the United States.

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