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Health Highlights: Sept. 4, 2004

Medicare Premiums Rising 17 Percent in 2005 Popular Dog Heartworm Drug Recalled Protein Linked to Cancer Also Helps in Nerve Repair Live Music Benefits Premature Infants Rare Fever Kills New Jersey Man New Device Helps Children With Skeletal Disorder

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

Medicare Premiums Rising 17 Percent in 2005

The U.S. government has announced a record increase in Medicare premiums for 2005, and all depending which side you're on in the Presidential race, it's either an enhanced package for senior citizens, or the elderly population is being socked with the largest premium hike in the health insurance program's 40 year history.

The portion of the Medicare premium affected is for doctor visits, which will increase a record $11.60 a month next year. This brings the payment to $78.20 a month, a 17 percent increase.

The Bush administration says the increase reflects better benefits. "The new premiums reflect an enhanced Medicare that is providing seniors and people with disabilities with strengthened access to physician services and new preventive benefits,'' Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Associated Press Friday. McClellan cited the new government drug assistance program and a 1.5 percent increase in doctors' payments as reasons for the increase.

Democrats, however, have an entirely different view. Paul Singer, a spokesman for Democtratic Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, told the A.P., "George Bush is presiding over a Medicare system that is socking seniors with the largest premium hike in the program's 40-year history.''

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Popular Dog Heartworm Drug Recalled

After repeated incidents that sometimes included death, the maker of a widely-used heartworm pill for dogs has agreed to withdraw it from the market.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made the announcement Friday, saying that there appeared to be a direct connection between thousands of adverse reactions and the use of ProHeart6, made by Fort Dodge Animal Health, of Overland Park, Kan.

"The FDA will convene an independent scientific advisory committee to thoroughly evaluate all available data," the agency said in a statement.

ProHeart6 is injected twice a year, and the FDA extended its advisory to all veterinarians about the dangers of continuing to use the drug.

The Associated Press reports that by Aug. 4, the FDA had received 5,552 reports of adverse reactions, and about 500 dogs died. Some dog deaths were linked convincingly to the heartworm medication, and this prompted the recall, the wire service reported.

The FDA describes heartworm as "a serious and potentially fatal condition of dogs, cats, and other species of mammals. The parasite that causes heartworm disease is transmitted through the bite of a mosquito."

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Protein Linked to Cancer Also Helps in Nerve Repair

A cancer gene that regulates a protein called c-Jun also helps repair damaged nerve cells, says a study by scientists with Cancer Research U.K.

This findings may help lead to new treatments for spinal injuries, BBC News Online reported.

The scientists have been studying c-Jun's function in both tumors and healthy tissue. High levels of the protein are present in a number of kinds of cancer. Previous research found that high levels of c-Jun were present when nerve cells were damaged.

In this study, the researchers examined the axonal response -- a chain of chemical reactions that occur when nerve cells are damaged -- in mice that lacked c-Jun in their central nervous system. Axonal response helps in nerve re-growth and recovery after injury.

The nerves in the mice that lacked c-Jun were far less likely to recover after an injury than the nerves of normal mice. That suggests that c-Jun is a major regulator of axonal response, BBC News said.

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Live Music Benefits Premature Infants

Live music, such as mothers singing lullabies, can help calm premature babies in hospital neonatal units, says an Israeli study.

The researchers compared the effects of 30 minutes of live and recorded versions of a female singer and harp music on 15 premature babies, BBC News Online reported.

After hearing the live music, the babies slept much more deeply and had a reduced heart rate than after they heard the recorded music.

"It could be that the live music is different to recorded music in its timbre, its echo, and other variables that could influence the baby," lead researcher Dr. Shmuel Arnon told BBC News Online.

He suggested that mothers be encouraged to sing lullabies to infants in neonatal units, which are often filled with the sound of medical machines monitoring the babies.

The study was presented at a British Psychological Society conference.

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Rare Fever Kills New Jersey Man

A fever common in Africa but rare in the United States has claimed the life of a New Jersey man who had traveled to Liberia, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Lassa fever hadn't been detected in the United States since 1989, the wire service said. The virus is spread through rat droppings and urine, but is only transmitted between people through exchange of bodily fluids, according to the AP account.

The 38-year-old Trenton man wasn't identified. State Health Commissioner Dr. Clifton Lacy told the wire service that other passengers on the man's flight back from Africa probably aren't at risk. The man's family said he had no symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting when he arrived home. As of Friday morning, authorities were still trying to identify which Newark, N.J.-bound flight the man had taken.

As many as 300,000 people in West Africa get Lassa fever each year, the AP reported, killing about 5,500. Most victims have few or no symptoms, the wire service said.

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New Device Helps Children With Skeletal Disorder

An implanted device used to treat a rare skeletal disorder called Thoracic Insufficiency Syndrome has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The disorder is characterized by severe deformities of the chest, spine, and ribs that prevent normal breathing and lung development, according to an FDA statement. The device, known as a vertical expandable prosthetic titanium rib, was granted a humanitarian device exemption as a method of treating a disorder that affects fewer than 4,000 people annually in the United States.

Manufacturers granted this type of exemption must prove that a device has a probable medical benefit that outweighs any risk of injury or illness, the agency said.

The device, produced by Synthes Spine Co., of West Chester, Pa., is a curved metal rod that is attached to ribs near the spine. It's meant to help straighten the spine and separate the ribs so that the lungs can properly fill with air and develop normally.

The device is lengthened as the patient grows, requiring the child to undergo repeat operations every six months, the FDA said. It was found to be safe and of probable benefit to 147 children who participated in clinical trials.

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