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Health Highlights: June 24, 2005

2nd U.S. Mad Cow Case Confirmed House Passes Bill Barring Medicare Viagra Coverage Guidant Issues Alert on 5 Defibrillator Models FDA Panel Nixes Artificial Heart Software Flaw May Affect More Than 1,000 U.S. Hospitals Staying Home Safer Than Evacuation During Chemical Spill: Study

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

2nd U.S. Mad Cow Case Confirmed

The second-ever case of "mad cow" disease in the United States has been confirmed, the Department of Agriculture said Friday.

The cow was considered a "downer" that was unable to walk and hadn't entered the human food supply, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said.

"This animal was blocked from entering the food supply because of the firewalls we have in place. Americans have every reason to continue to be confident in the safety of our beef," he told a news conference.

An internationally recognized laboratory in the United Kingdom confirmed that the animal had the brain-wasting disease, after tests in the United States yielded conflicting results, the Associated Press reported.

The first U.S. case of the disease, medically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was diagnosed in 2003 in a Washington state Holstein that had been imported from Canada. The origin of the new case wasn't immediately made available.

Mad cow disease occurs when proteins called prions bend into misfolded shapes. They deposit plaque that kills brain cells and leaves behind spongy holes. People who eat contaminated meat may acquire a human form called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has killed about 150 people worldwide, the AP said.


House Passes Bill Barring Medicare Viagra Coverage

Legislation barring Medicare or Medicaid coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 285-121 on Friday.

The amendment by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is projected to save taxpayers $105 million next year, he told the Associated Press. A study he commissioned concluded that the federal government was projected to spend more than $2 billion over the next decade on the drugs.

"We don't force taxpayers to pay for face lifts, weight-loss drugs, hair-growth treatment or vacations, so we should not force them to pay for sexual-performance drugs," King was quoted by the wire service as saying.

The provision was added to pending legislation that barred the government from paying for the drugs for convicted sex offenders. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), an opponent of King's measure, had argued that law-abiding men who had lost sexual function due to illness shouldn't be denied the drugs.

The Senate has yet to consider the measure.


Guidant Issues Alert on 5 Defibrillator Models

Five models of Guidant Corp.'s implantable cardiac defibrillators have a faulty switch that could cause a malfunction and doctors should stop using these models until further notice, the company said Friday.

The five models are the Contak Renewal 3 and 4, Renewal 3 and 4 AVT, and Renewal RF. Guidant said about 46,000 of these models are in use, the Associated Press reported.

There have been at least four confirmed malfunctions in these devices, and a fifth suspected case. No patients have been injured.

This is the second safety advisory issued this week for defibrillators made by Indianapolis-based Guidant, the AP reported. The company recalled 50,000 implantable ones after reports of 45 failures that resulted in at least two deaths.


FDA Panel Nixes Artificial Heart

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel of experts has recommended not approving the first fully implantable artificial heart, saying most of the few recipients so far suffered serious side effects for little gain.

The AbioCor artificial heart has been tested in only 14 men. Two died from the operation; another never regained consciousness. The rest survived only an average of five months, with one exception: a man who lived 17 months, until the mechanical heart wore out.

Abiomed Inc. had applied for a "humanitarian device exemption," which is designed for devices that could help fewer than 4,000 people a year who have no other options, the Associated Press said. The exemption requires far less proof of how well a device works than the standard FDA approval method.

Under the exemption, the heart device would have to offer "probable benefit" to people with heart failure and other cardiac problems who are too sick for a heart transplant and would likely die within a month, the AP said.

The AbioCor is a softball-sized, battery-powered device that takes over the pumping of a diseased heart. Unlike its other mechanical predecessors, it has no wires or tubes sticking through the skin.


Software Flaw May Affect More Than 1,000 U.S. Hospitals

More than 1,000 U.S. hospitals may have a flaw in software they use to help them qualify for accreditation and payments from Medicare, according to a new report.

The flaw involves a missing identification marker that alerts hospitals to standards considered essential by Joint Commission Resources, a unit of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations that enforces quality standards for hospitals. With that marker missing from its software, a hospital may overlook essential categories in which it's required to verify compliance, The New York Times reported.

The software was sold by Joint Commission Resources to the hospitals. A note about the software defect was posted on the Joint Commission Resources Web site. A spokesperson for the joint commission said the software error was minor and would be fixed Friday.


Staying Home Safer Than Evacuation During Chemical Spill: Study

It may actually be safer to stay at home instead of evacuating during a chemical leak or fire, say British researchers in the June 25 issue of the British Medical Journal.

The University of Bristol study of people who lived near the site of plastics factory fire in 1999 found that people who were evacuated suffered more symptoms than those who remained in their homes, BBC News reported.

In the period immediately following the fire, 19.7 percent of evacuees and 9.5 percent of the people who stayed in their homes experienced symptoms such as coughs or runny eyes. Two weeks after the fire, 3.3 percent of the evacuees and 1.9 percent of the stay-at-home group had symptoms.

"Shutting the windows reduces exposure to whatever's outside by 10 times," and placing wet towels or newspapers reduces that by 30 to 50 times," study leader Dr. Sanjay Kinra told BBC News.

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