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Health Highlights: Jan. 21, 2005

Final Medicare Drug Benefit Provisions Unveiled Anti-Bacterial Chemical Found in U.S. Waterways Jan. 24 is Most Depressing Day of Year: Psychologist Japanese Government Ponders Iressa Ban Bird Flu Pandemic Could Eclipse Tsunami, WHO Warns Armstrong Ready to Talk to Police About Doping Allegations

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

Final Medicare Drug Benefit Provisions Unveiled

The U.S. Medicare program released final regulations Friday for establishing the long-awaited senior prescription drug benefit, to take effect in 2006.

Under the sweeping Medicare Modernization Act signed by President Bush in 2003, the new provisions begin the shift from the temporary drug discount cards now in use to broad-based drug coverage for all beneficiaries, according to a statement from Medicare's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS says the new rules, affecting 41 million elderly and disabled Americans, include provisions to:

  • Give beneficiaries a choice of at least two drug plans that will cover a wide range of both brand names and generics.
  • Give relief to 9 million low-income beneficiaries by waiving any premiums and deductibles.
  • Ensure that people who qualify for participation in both Medicare and Medicaid are automatically enrolled in the drug plan if they fail to sign up by the December 2005 deadline.

Once the drug benefit takes effect, it's expected to save U.S. states an estimated $8 billion annually over the first five years, the statement said.

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Anti-Bacterial Chemical Found in U.S. Waterways

An anti-microbial chemical used in hand soaps and other cleaning products appears to be present in about 60 percent of the 85 U.S. streams, rivers and other water resources investigated by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, according to a statement from the college's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Triclocarban has been used for some 50 years, but rarely has been monitored for its effects on the environment, scientists led by Prof. Rolf U. Halden said. If the results were confirmed nationwide, it would mean triclocarban is the fifth most frequent contaminant among 96 pharmaceuticals, personal care products and organic wastewater contaminants evaluated, the school's statement said.

Triclocarban is often difficult to detect, noted Halden's team, which predicted the chemical's concentrations based on actual test results of similar contaminants found in the same cleaning products. The researchers said their results suggested that triclocarban contamination is "greatly underreported" nationwide.

Results of the study are published in the online edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society.

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Jan. 24 is Most Depressing Day of Year: Psychologist

If a British psychologist's assessment is correct, next Monday will be the most depressing day of 2005 for many people.

Dr. Cliff Arnall, who specializes in seasonal disorders at the University of Cardiff in Wales, has devised a formula that accounts for such factors as weather, time since Christmas, monetary debt and motivational levels, reports MSNBC.

"Following the initial thrill of New Year's celebrations and changing over a new leaf, reality starts to sink in," Arnall told the network. "The realization coincides with the dark [winter] clouds rolling in and the obligation to pay off Christmas credit card bills."

Arnall devised the formula at the request of a British travel agency, which had asked him to estimate when people were most likely to seek respite from a long, harsh winter.

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Japanese Government Ponders Iressa Ban

The Japanese government is considering banning the controversial lung cancer drug Iressa following a report that links the drug to 588 deaths in that country, more than four times the number of deaths previously believed to have been caused by the drug.

A spokesperson for Japan's Ministry of Health and Welfare told The Times of London that the report's findings raise the possibility that Iressa would be withdrawn from the Japanese market.

Along with the 588 deaths, the report concluded that 1,473 patients suffered serious side effects after taking Iressa. A full version of the report, compiled by a panel of scientists, is due in March.

The findings are part of an emergency investigation into the safety and efficacy of Iressa ordered last year after drug maker AstraZeneca said a clinical trial of Iressa showed the drug was no more effective than a placebo in prolonging the lives of lung cancer patients, The Times reported.

Japan accounts for more than 40 percent of total worldwide sale of Iressa.

"We view the discussions with the Ministry of Health as being constructive and the outlook for Iressa as being very positive. The regulatory status of Iressa in Japan is unchanged," an AstraZeneca spokesperson told The Times.

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Bird Flu Pandemic Could Eclipse Tsunami, WHO Warns

The recent outbreak of bird flu-related human deaths in Vietnam may be a harbinger of a global pandemic that could kill far more people than the recent tsunami, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The current death toll from the December 26 tsunami stands at 221,000 people. Millions could die in a bird flu pandemic, the WHO said.

"If we continue to experience these frequent new outbreaks with the virus spread both in poultry and people, it might finally result in an awful virus strain that could become a pandemic with a horrendous outcome," Hans Troedsson, the WHO representative in Vietnam, told CBC News Online.

Seven bird flu deaths have confirmed in Vietnam in the past three weeks.

Since the end of 2003, bird flu has killed 27 people in Vietnam and 12 people in Thailand.

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Armstrong Ready to Talk to Police About Doping Allegations

Six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong says he's ready to meet with French police to discuss doping allegations against him, according to a BBC News Online report.

A French judge ordered an investigation after publication of a book that accused Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs.

"I will make myself available anytime and anywhere to meet with investigators. I do not use -- and have never used -- performance-enhancing drugs," the American cyclist said.

Last year, Armstrong was unsuccessful in his court attempt to have his denial about the doping allegations included in the book LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong.

"I am disappointed in the judge's decision to open this investigation without having talked to me first," Armstrong said. "I am confident my name will be cleared and I look forward to racing in France for years to come."

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