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Health Highlights: Nov. 12, 2003

Trial HIV Vaccine Disappoints Statins Can Beat Back Atherosclerosis Cooking Remains Top Cause of Home Fires Working to the Bone Bad for Bones Prescription Drug Bill Said to Be Getting Closer Medicare Reeling From Power Wheelchair Scams

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

Trial HIV Vaccine Disappoints

An investigational vaccine that researchers hoped would boost antibodies against the virus that causes AIDS has failed.

VaxGen Inc. of Brisbane, Calif., which manufactures the vaccine, announced Wednesday that it failed to prevent HIV and didn't slow the progression of the virus.

Researchers tried out the vaccine on 2,546 injection drug users in Bangkok, Thailand. The subjects were given seven injections of the vaccine over a 36-month period. The aim was to see how effective the vaccine was against preventing blood-borne HIV.

During the course of the trial, 106 of those receiving the vaccine contracted HIV, compared to 105 who got a placebo.

VaxGen announced that it was "disappointed" with the results. "The outcome of this trial is one more reminder of how difficult it is to combat HIV and how important it is for the international public health community to redouble the effort to develop an effective vaccine," Dr. Donald P. Francis, VaxGen's president, said in a statement.

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Statins Can Beat Back Atherosclerosis

A new study finds that the cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins can soften hardened arteries when prescribed aggressively.

The study, presented Wednesday at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Fla., found that patients who took atorvastatin calcium, sold under the brand name Lipitor, significantly stopped the progression of atherosclerosis. The volume of plaque in their arteries fell by 0.4 percent, according to the study.

"These results clearly show that aggressively lowering cholesterol levels with atorvastatin calcium stopped the progression of atherosclerosis," said Dr. Steve Nissen, medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic Cardiovascular Coordinating Center and lead author of the study. It "further demonstrates the benefits of aggressively managing cholesterol levels to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis."

The study tracked 502 patients with diagnosed hardening of the arteries and who hadn't been on statins. It compared Pfizer's Lipitor against Pravachol, another statin made by Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and found that those on Pravachol saw a 2.7 increase in their plaque content. The Lipitor patients got 80 milligrams of that drug, the highest recommended daily dosage, while the Pravachol patients got 40 mg of that drug.

The study, which was sponsored by Pfizer, aims to make the case that all statins are not alike. Many researchers have found that a benefit of one drug in this class should probably extend to all.

This is the second breakthrough in a week against hardening of the arteries. Nissen led a study, published in the Nov. 5 Journal of the American Medical Association, finding that a trial drug derived from Italian villagers can raise the "good" cholesterol in people with atherosclerosis.

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Cooking Remains Top Cause of Home Fires

Home fires have been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years thanks to many safety improvements, but blazes started by cooking remain stubbornly high.

New figures from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) find that, overall, home fires fell by 49 percent between 1980 and 1999, the last year for which figures were available, and the number of deaths sank by 44 percent.

In that same time span, though, the number of cooking fires fell by just 29 percent between 1980 and 1999, and the number of deaths from those fires dropped by 21 percent.

The NFPA found that three out of four cooking fires started on the range, two-thirds of the fires began within the first 15 minutes of cooking, and that in six out of seven instances the cook was outside the kitchen when the fire erupted.

The NFPA found that there were 96,200 cooking-related fires in the United States in 1999, causing 331 deaths, 4,183 injuries -- half of them among people who tried to douse the fire -- and $511 million in property damage.

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Working to the Bone Bad for Bones

Working too hard is bad for the bones, a new study finds.

Researchers from Temple University have found that repetitive motions are damaging not only to the bones but to ligaments and tendons, according to a BBC report.

The report adds more fuel to the debate over carpal tunnel syndrome, and whether work alone or other factors were involved in the disorder. The researchers, led by Dr. Ann Barr, studied the effects of work alone on rats to isolate the effects, the BBC says.

They found that when the rats were subjected to repeated tasks, their bones and muscles became inflamed. They stopped doing the tasks because of the pain.

"These behaviors increased according to the rate of repetition," the agency quotes her as saying. "The higher the repetition, the more severe the symptoms."

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Prescription Drug Bill Said to Be Getting Closer

How to integrate private insurers into the Medicare mix appeared to be the main sticking point Wednesday as U.S. lawmakers inched closer to a compromise bill that guarantees prescription drug coverage for the elderly, the Associated Press reports.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tells the wire service that negotiators would need to finish their work Wednesday to meet the Nov. 21 targeted timetable for congressional adjournment for the year.

The finished bill would create a prescription drug benefit for 40 million elderly and disabled people on Medicare. The Republican majority in both houses also hopes to introduce a private insurance option, which it argues is necessary to contain costs.

Democrats are largely opposed to the idea of direct competition between traditional Medicare and private plans, arguing it would raise premiums for seniors who remained in the traditional program. The House version of the bill that contained the private insurance option passed the chamber by only a single vote, and included only nine Democrats voting for the plan. The Senate version of the legislation had no such provision.

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Medicare Reeling From Power Wheelchair Scams

The U.S. government is accusing an unidentified number of power wheelchair suppliers of stealing more than $167 million by filing bogus Medicare claims, the Associated Press reports.

Government officials have launched 50 separate probes into the alleged scams, which have risen to the top of Medicare investigators' problem list, the wire service says. With Medicare paying 80 percent of each chair's cost, the agency's share soared to $663 million last year from $22 million in 1995. The AP says a typical motorized chair costs $3,840.

Investigators tell the wire service that the cases can include suppliers submitting phony claims, doctors who get kickbacks for writing unneeded prescriptions, and some suppliers delivering a much cheaper motorized scooter despite Medicare having paid at least $5,000 for a power wheelchair.

The Medicare crackdown has recovered more than $52 million, the AP reports. Investigators are focusing on probes in Florida, Texas, California and Louisiana, though potential cases of fraud also have been uncovered in 16 other states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

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