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Health Highlights: Aug. 5, 2008

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

Medicare OK'd Fake Suppliers: Report

Medicare approved two fake companies to supply wheelchairs and other equipment, even though the phony firms had no inventory or clients, says a Government Accountability Office report released Monday.

The bogus companies in Maryland and Virginia were set up by government investigators looking into fraud problems afflicting Medicare, Bloomberg news reported.

"If real fraudsters had been in charge of the fictitious companies, they would have been clear to bill Medicare from the Virginia office for potentially millions of dollars of false supplies," the GAO said.

Billing tests for the fake Maryland company weren't completed because the investigators didn't receive the necessary passwords from Medicare, Bloomberg reported.

In the fiscal year ending March 2007, Medicare made about $1 billion in improper payments on canes, prosthetic devices, wheelchairs, and other equipment. Medicare says it's implementing new billing oversight requirements for medical suppliers, according to Bloomberg.


U.S. Woman First to Get Cloned Puppies From S. Korean Company

A California women is the initial customer of a South Korean company that claims to be the world's first successful commercial canine cloning service. Bernann McKinney received five puppies Tuesday that were cloned from her late pitbull Booger.

His frozen cells were brought to RNL Bio of Seoul, South Korea, in March and nurtured before formal cloning work began in May, the Associated Press reported. RNL identified the puppies as Booger's genuine clones and reconfirmation tests are being conducted by Seoul National University scientists.

RNL eventually plans to clone about 300 dogs a year and may even clone camels for customers in the Middle East. The company charges up to $150,000 for dog cloning, but McKinney will pay only $50,000 because she's the first customer and helped with publicity, the AP said.

''It's a miracle!'' McKinney repeatedly shouted when she saw her cloned puppies at the laboratory, the news service reported.


Vaccine May Give HIV Patients a Break From Regular Medication

A vaccine designed to give HIV patients a prolonged respite from their regular medication will be tested in a trial of 345 patients in 21 centers in Europe and the United States, researchers announced at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.

It's believed giving HIV patients a break from standard HIV therapy would help alleviate adverse side effects associated with the drugs and may also help delay the emergence of drug-resistant viruses, BBC News reported. It would also provide substantial savings for health care services.

The vaccine was developed by Norway-based biotechnology company Bionor Immuno. Results from the trial are due by the end of 2009.

"A successful immunotherapeutic HIV vaccine would give patients and doctors enormous advantages over current treatments, both in developed and developing countries," said Dr. Barry Peters, of Kings College London, BBC News reported.

"Even if this vaccine is not the final answer, it could help the march toward a successful immunotherapeutic HIV vaccine," said Peters, who is leading the research in Great Britain.


FDA Introduces New Advisory Committee Rules

Stricter limits on financial conflicts of interest and improved voting procedures are among the new policies meant to improve transparency and public disclosure at U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committees.

Under the new rules, the FDA has imposed a cap of $50,000 as the maximum personal financial interest an advisor may have in all companies that may be affected by a particular advisory committee meeting. If an advisor's personal financial interest is greater than $50,000, he or she won't be allowed to participate in the meeting. If the financial interest is less than $50,000, the FDA may grant a waiver, but only if it's determined there is an essential need for an advisor's particular expertise.

Details of such waivers will be posted on the FDA's Web site in advance of meetings.

Most of the announced changes to advisory committee policies will go into effect immediately and all are expected to be fully implemented within 120 days.

The FDA's advisory committees include outside, independent experts who advise agency officials as they consider regulatory issues, such as the approval of new drugs or medical devices. Last year, the FDA convened 48 meetings of advisory committees.


Some Restaurant Workers Ignore Food-Safety Practices: Study

A lack of training and resources are among the factors cited by restaurant workers for not adhering to food-safety practices designed to prevent food-borne illness, says a U.S. study that included focus groups of 125 restaurant employees.

The Kansas State University researchers identified 90 barriers to food-safety practices. Inadequate training and resources, time constraints and inconvenience were the top reasons for not applying three important food-safety practices: hand washing, using thermometers, and cleaning work surfaces, United Press International reported.

The study included workers with no formal food-safety training and those who took part in a formal ServSafe training program. The workers who'd received formal training listed a number of other barriers to using food-safety practices: no incentive to implement the practices; dry skin from hand washing; lack of working thermometers; inconvenient location of sinks; and managers not monitoring if staff cleaned work surfaces.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

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Posted: August 2008