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Health Highlights: Dec. 25, 20045

West Nile Continued Heading West in 2004 Heart Boy Goes Home for ChristmasWanted: A Few Good ... Hollywood TechiesBill Clinton Special Visitor at Heart Center Medicare Will Pay for Smokers' Counseling Bayer Pulls Plug on Clinical Trial for Stroke Drug

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

West Nile Continued Heading West in 2004

West Nile virus, an-encephalitis-like illness carried through the bite of mosquitoes, was the scourge of America's east coast a few short years ago. Deaths in double digits were common in New York, New Jersey and other northeastern states.

But the disease migrated quickly, and the number of recorded cases in states like New York plummeted this past year, according to the Associated Press.

In just one year -- between 2003 and 2004 -- the number of reported human cases in New York dropped from 71 to 10. The number of deaths was even more dramatic. In 2003, 11 people in New York died from West Nile, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2004, there were no deaths attributed to the disease. And there was good news throughout the Northeast. Massachusetts didn't even have a reported human case of West Nile in 2004.

But on the West Coast, the West Nile virus cases recorded the opposite numbers. CDC statistics show that California reported only three cases and no deaths in 2003, but it had 760 cases and 23 deaths in 2004. The state hardest hit in 2003 was Colorado, with 63 deaths out of 2,947 cases reported.

It does appear that West Nile's mortality rate is dropping dramatically. According to the CDC, there were 87 deaths nationwide in 2004 compared to 264 deaths in 2003.

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Heart Boy Goes Home for Christmas

A 14-year-old Arkansas boy, the first child to receive a new heart after relying on a newly developed miniature heart pump, is home for Christmas.

Born with a congenital heart defect, Travis Marcus of Cabot had several operations since birth. His parents took him to Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock Sept. 5 for a routine procedure, but learned he had developed severe problems. The boy was placed on a heart-lung bypass machine and also placed on a transplant list. But doctors said the bypass machine damages a patient's organs and increases the risk of stroke and bleeding, according to the Associated Press.

Doctors then decided to implant the miniature pump -- the DeBakey Child Ventricular Assist Device, a 1-by-3-inch, 4-ounce device that fits inside the patient's chest and is powered by an external battery pack. It was developed by 96-year-old Houston heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, considered the father of modern cardiovascular surgery. It had been used in only one other child -- a 6-year-old Texas girl who died in April before she could receive a transplant.

DeBakey flew to Little Rock to visit Travis and his family as Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb implanted the device Sept. 16. Two months later, Travis got a new heart. On Thursday, he left the hospital and was planning to help his sister bake Christmas cookies at home.

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Wanted: A Few Good ... Hollywood Techies

Military medicine professionals want to take advantage of high tech virtuosity, and they're doing it in real time.

The Associated Press reports that The U.S. Army is particularly interested in all the motion picture special graphic effects enhanced by computer technology. They could be used for combat medic training, according to Dr. Greg Mogel, West Coast director of the U.S. Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. "When a character in a video game or movie is killed ... the graphics they use to show what that wound would look like is absolutely something we need to expose all health care workers to," he told the wire service.

While the Army is looking to strengthen alliances with Hollywood, the U.S. Navy has begun a program to create a emergency medical response enhanced by satellite and computer imaging.

The A.P. reports that the U.S. Office of Naval Research has started to develop a "virtual doctor" as part of the First Responder Emergency Communications-Mobile (FREC-M), a program that may some day save lives on the battlefield.

Using a maritime satellite, the FREC-M can transmit photographic images and vital life sign data from the ambulance during combat to a hospital or trauma center, and doctors there can instruct medics on the proper measures to take.

The FREC-M has yet to be field-tested, the wire service says.

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BIll Clinton Special Visitor at Heart Center

The last time former President Bill Clinton was in the Westchester County, N.Y. Medical Center was last September for a test that literally changed his life.

Clinton, who had been complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain, was tested by Dr. Anthony Pucillo, who determined that he had severe artery blockage. Clinton, whose Chappaqua home is not far from the medical center, was rushed to Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia in New York City, where he had quadruple bypass surgery a few days later.

Clinton returned to the Westchester Medical Center Dec. 23 to dedicate a new cardiac catheterization unit run by Pucillo.

"I was really delighted to walk in here instead of coming in a wheelchair and I'm even more delighted to be able to walk out," the Associated Press quotes him as saying.

The wire service reports Pucillo as telling Clinton that the publicity about his illness "contributed to more awareness of the importance and value of diagnosis and treatment among the general public." And the former president responded, "This may have done more to affect as many people as almost anything I did when I was president."

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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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