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Health Highlights: July 17, 2004

Drug-Coated Heart Stents Recalled Big Rise Seen in Cigarette-Related Fires Could Niacin Prevent Alzheimer's? Medicare: Obesity Is an Illness U.S. Senate Votes To Let FDA Regulate Tobacco AIDS Conference Highlights Pending Threats

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

Drug-Coated Heart Stents Recalled

Boston Scientific Corp. announced that it is recalling 85,000 of its drug-coated heart stents in the wake of reports that the devices have been linked to deaths and serious injuries.

The Boston Globe reports that the recall, the company's second in a month, has prompted several hospitals to halt using the stents.

The company said it has received reports linking the drug-coated Taxus stents to one death and 18 serious injuries, according to the Globe account. Boston Scientific also said that it is aware of two deaths and 25 serious injuries associated with an earlier stent system, called Express2, and that is recalling 11,000 of the 600,000 it has shipped.

The devices are seen as a huge advance in cardiovascular surgery. They are implanted in heart patients during angioplasty, as scaffolding to keep a vessel open. The drug coating the stent prevents inflammation and scarring that can lead to the re-clogging of an artery, which is common among those who undergo angioplasty.

Two Boston hospitals, deciding that it's better to be safe than sorry, suspended using the devices. ''We took the stents off the shelf out of old Yankee conservatism," Campbell Rogers, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told the Globe.

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Big Rise Seen in Cigarette-Related Fires

Fires started by lighted tobacco products -- in almost all cases, cigarettes -- have risen by 19 percent even though only one state has mandated "fire-safe" cigarettes.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) saw the steep increase in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths, according to the group.

In 1999, smoking-material fires rose 19 percent over the previous year to 167,700, resulting in 807 civilian deaths, 2,193 civilian injuries, and $559.1 million in property damage. Deaths and injuries both decreased by 11 percent from 1998 to 1999, but property damage costs, adjusted for inflation, rose by 33 percent, the NFPA report said. These statistics count only burning tobacco, not fires resulting from matches or lighters.

Contrary to popular belief, most victims did not fall asleep while smoking, and many weren't even smokers. Instead, many of the fires started when the smoking materials weren't disposed of properly.

"Cigarette fires are a major cause of death that we know how to address,'' NFPA president James M. Shannon said in a statement. "A cigarette touching something combustible can take significant time to produce a fire. Cut down the burning time of cigarettes and you can prevent fires."

Only one state, New York, now mandates cigarettes that extinguish themselves when not being actively smoked.

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Could Niacin Prevent Alzheimer's?

A new study says that a vitamin found in many different types of foods may have a protective effect against Alzheimer's disease.

People consuming large amounts of vitamin B3, better known as niacin, saw their chances of developing mental decline "substantially reduced," the BBC reports.

Researchers at the Chicago Institute for Healthy Aging report that cognitive decline was 44 percent lower among those with the highest niacin intake compared to those with the lowest intake, according to the BBC.

Niacin is found naturally in eggs, lean meats, poultry, dairy products, and fish.

The researchers examined the diets of almost 4,000 people aged 65 and over between 1993 and 2002. None had any signs of mental decline at the time. They found the niacin link after accounting for other factors.

The discovery "could have substantial public health implications for disease prevention if confirmed by further research," the researchers write in the Journal of Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

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Medicare: Obesity Is an Illness

Medicare participants could be filing claims for diet programs and obesity treatments like stomach "stapling" surgery under a new Medicare policy that treats obesity as an illness.

"Obesity is a critical public health problem in our country that causes millions of Americans to suffer unnecessary health problems and to die prematurely," said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in announcing the new policy. He said problems linked to obesity result in billions of dollars in health-care costs, according to an account from the Associated Press.

The new policy removes language that barred consideration of obesity as an illness, which had effectively denied coverage of most weight-loss therapies, the AP reported.

The change means that remedies will now be considered on a treatment-by-treatment basis. Medicare did not provide an estimate of how much the new policy is expected to cost taxpayers, the wire service said.

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U.S. Senate Votes to Let FDA Regulate Tobacco

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill granting the federal Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco.

Thursday's 78-15 vote included affirmative votes from 43 Democrats and 35 Republicans. The proposed legislation includes a $12 billion tobacco quota buyout, about 40 percent of which would apply to North Carolina, according to the state's News & Observer newspaper.

The House passed a $9.6 billion tobacco quota buyout earlier that did not include the FDA regulation, the newspaper said. House and Senate conferees must now decide whether to include the FDA provision in final legislation to send to President Bush.

The FDA under the Clinton administration announced that it would assume control over tobacco, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule that Congress alone could grant that authority.

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AIDS Conference Highlights Pending Threats

The largest AIDS conference ever concluded Friday in Bangkok, Thailand, with reports detailing soaring infection rates among women and warning of explosive epidemics in Asia and Eastern Europe, the Associated Press said.

"History will surely judge us harshly if we do not respond with all the energy and resources that we can bring to bear in the fight against HIV/AIDS," Nelson Mandela, the 85-year-old former South African president, told the 15th International AIDS Conference. Speaking during the closing ceremonies, he said he "cannot rest" until the world turns the tide against the AIDS epidemic.

Mandela and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for more donations to United Nations' efforts to combat the disease. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates' foundation and the European Union announced new grants totaling $102 million, the AP reported.

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