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Health Highlights: Sept. 6, 2004

L.A. Increases Blood Donor Test for West NileMedicare Premiums Rising 17 Percent in 2005Laser Replaces Traditional Procedure for Gum SurgeryNicotine Replacement Therapy May Work Better on Men Popular Dog Heartworm Drug Recalled Protein Linked to Cancer Also Helps in Nerve Repair Live Music Benefits Premature Infants

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

L.A. Increases Blood Donor Test for West Nile

The sometimes-deadly West Nile virus has caused most of its damage during the past two years in the Western part of the United States, and officials in Los Angeles County are concerned that blood donors could spread the disease even more.

The Los Angeles Times reports that county officials are increasing their testing of donated blood after 39 cases of West Nile have been found in the donor blood supply. Thats about one donor per 1,000 in Los Angeles County, and one-in-400 in San Bernardino County, the Times says.

The newspaper says that 11 Californians have died from West Nile virus this year, and more than 370 have tested positive for the disease, which usually manifests itself in the very old or very young.

"If those patients, say, the elderly person with leukemia, got a contaminated unit with West Nile, they would be doubly vulnerable," Dr. Janice Nelson, medical director of transfusion medicine at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, told the newspaper. "They would probably die of West Nile virus."

West Nile first appeared in the United States in 1999, causing deaths on the East Coast. It has since spread throughout the country. Health officials say that only about 1 percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito develop the most severe form of the illness. Another 15 to 20 percent develop severe flu-like symptoms.

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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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Laser Replaces Traditional Procedure for Gum Surgery

Move over, scalpel, the laser is here to treat the gums.

While it may not yet have replaced traditional surgery to treat periodontal disease, laser surgery is getting enthusiastic reviews as a substitute for removing diseased gum tissue.

An article in the September/October 2004 issue of the journal General Dentistry, published by the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), describes a new procedure on how lasers are being used to treat diseased gums.

Lasers are used in a two step approach. The first is to initiate the laser-assisted new attachment procedure (LANAP), which has the lasers strip away diseased tissue. The second method uses lasers to heat the area until a clot is formed. This clot which is similar to scab, clot protects the newly-lasered tissue by keeping it closed. Once the clot heals, new gum tissue is left behind.

The laser procedure eliminates one important aspect of traditional periodontal surgery sutures. "The data shows you can treat periodontal disease without using sutures (stitches) or amputating the gums," says Dr. Robert H. Gregg, co-author of the study.

Another advantage of the laser surgery may be fewer follow-up visits, Gregg, adds.

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Nicotine Replacement Therapy May Work Better on Men

The nicotine patch and nicotine chewing gum have become mainstays in kicking the smoking habit, but new research indicates that women don't respond as well to nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) as men do.

Scientists at Texas A&M University analyzed several major smoking studies and found that while the short term effectiveness of the patch and nicotine gum was equally effective for both sexes, women were less likely to remain smoke-free if NRT was the only method they used to quit smoking. And, the researchers concluded, women need additional quit-smoking programs beside NRT.

Antonio Cepeda-Benito, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M, says data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates about 75 percent of women daily smokers are interested in quitting, but less than 10 percent of those who quit stay smoke-free in a given year.

Cepeda-Benito and his colleagues also concluded that that there is "the lack of assistance in quitting smoking provided to women because, as some studies suggest, physicians are less likely to ascertain women's smoking status and advise to quit smoking."

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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 nerv

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