Health Highlights: Nov. 27, 2003

First heart Attack Gene Identified Flu Kills 4 Children in ColoradoNew Heart Pump May Reduce Pain After Surgery Stephen King Hospitalized for Pneumonia Experts: Medicare Drug Costs Will Rise

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

First Heart Attack Gene Identified

More than 100 members of an Iowa family have provided scientists with the long-sought clue into whether there is a genetic predisposition to having a heart attack. And the answer is yes, there appears to be such a thing as a heart attack gene.

The Associated Press reports that the gene, known as MEF2A, has been traced through members of a large Iowa family that has been plagued for generations with heart problems, including coronary artery disease.

Dr. Eric J. Topol of the Cleveland Clinic, head of a team that discovered the gene, told the wire service that MEF2A, plays a role in protecting the artery walls from building up plaque that can lead to heart attacks.

"Everyone who has this gene mutation is destined to have the disease," Topol said. "If you don't have this gene in this family, you appear to free from developing this disease."

Topol said the research team found some of the Iowa family members had MEF2A genes that lacked key bits of DNA, and this made their arteries to thicken, impeding blood flow.

More studies will be conducted, Topol said, into non-related people with the same MEF2A problems, to see if the gene works the same way.

The discovery is reported in the latest edition of the journal Science.

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Flu Kills 4 Children in Colorado

The worst influenza outbreak in years has hit Colorado, where the virus has caused 3,399 confirmed cases and four deaths in children and has prompted health officials to call for more people to get flu shots.

The Rocky Mountain News reports that in the worst previous flu season in recent years, 3,557 cases were reported from November 2001 to May 2002. The state Department of Public Health and Environment reports 750 new infections on Monday and Tuesday alone, according to the paper.

In the last week, flu has claimed the lives of 2-year-old and 21-month-old children who had had no other medical problems. It has also killed 8-year-old and 15-year-old children who did have medical complications, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

"If possible, get your kids immunized," the paper quotes the state's chief medical officer, Dr. Ned Calonge, as saying. Officials stress the shot even though this year's batch isn't a perfect match for the current flu strain.

"We have confirmed a total of 3,957 cases of the flu statewide as of today, and the numbers keep climbing," Doug Benevento, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told the newspaper Wednesday.

"That is an increase of 558 cases reported on Tuesday, and the total is already more than we had for the entire flu seasons going back to 1999."

Colorado also suffered the most from this year's West Nile virus, accounting for nearly 2,500 of the 8,500 or so reported cases and 45 of the 199 deaths.

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New Heart Pump May Reduce Pain After Surgery

A team of researchers from Louisville, Ky. says it's come up with a new device that will not only reduce pain after heart surgery but also cut down on how long the patient stays in the hospital.

According to the Associated Press, scientists at Jewish Hospital have used a new pump, developed by I-Flow Corp. of Lake Forest, Cal., to infuse a local anesthetic into the incision. The pump's effectiveness in spreading the anesthetic into the affected area has caused much less pain, and as a result, patients can go home earlier, the wire service reports.

"We are as excited about this study as any we've done, because of the number of people it will help," the study's leader, Dr. Rob Dowling, a professor of surgery at the University of Louisville, told the A.P..

The researchers estimate the new procedure could save $1.4 billion a year in the United States by shortening hospital stays for many of the more than 750,000 heart operations performed in the United States each year.

The study was published this week in the December issue of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery

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Stephen King Hospitalized for Pneumonia

Just days after accepting the prestigious National Book Award for the body of his work, author Stephen King was hospitalized in Maine for pneumonia.

The disease was diagnosed in his right just before his trip to New York to accept the award on Nov. 19, his spokesman, Warren Silver, says in a statement. But his condition got worse upon his return to Maine, spreading to the other lung.

The author of the best-sellers Carrie, Salem's Lot, and The Shining additionally suffered from pleural effusion, a condition that forced doctors to drain fluid from his right lung on Tuesday, Silver says.

King, 56, is expected to remain in the hospital over Thanksgiving and several days beyond. "He is conscious and in good spirits, and happy to be able to breathe deeply again," the statement says. "He is expected to achieve a full recovery, has requested no visitors aside from family, and no flowers."

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Experts: Medicare Drug Costs Will Rise

Medicare premiums and deductibles are projected to rise each year for the prescription drugs seniors buy under the Medicare law President Bush is about to sign, according to experts cited by the Associated Press.

For instance, the $250 deductible that's slated to take effect when the program begins in 2006 is expected to rise to $445 by 2013, the wire service reports. And the initial gap in coverage between total drug costs and reimbursement from Medicare is expected to jump 10 percent in just the first year, according to Congressional Budget Office projections cited by the AP.

Critics of the legislation, which won final Congressional approval Tuesday, say lawmakers touted the 2006 numbers in seeking public support for the bill, but made little mention of what would happen in subsequent years.

"I think these numbers will come as a shock to consumers and they are pretty optimistic projections based on what drug costs are going to do," said Gail Shearer, a health policy analyst at Consumers Union.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin tells the wire service that there's no guarantee that even the initial $35 monthly premium is safe. He says economic and other factors in place when the prescription plan begins in 2006 will ultimately determine that number.

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