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Health Highlights: Oct. 30, 2009

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

Benjamin Confirmed as U.S. Surgeon General

Alabama family physician Dr. Regina Benjamin was confirmed Thursday as the new U.S. surgeon general. The Senate approved her by voice vote.

Benjamin, 53, became well-known for her efforts to rebuild her rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The clinic serves 4,400 patients who would have difficulty finding care elsewhere, the Associated Press reported.

Honors awarded to Benjamin, the first black woman to head a state medical society, include the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights and a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

"My hope ... is to be America's doctor, America's family physician," Benjamin said when President Obama nominated her in July, the AP reported. "As we work toward a solution to this health care crisis, I promise to communicate directly with the American people to help guide them through whatever changes may come with health care reform."


Methadone Overdose a Danger for Medicaid Patients

Medicaid patients may be at high risk for overdose death caused by the opioid painkiller methadone, according to a study released Thursday.

The researchers looked at Washington, where the 2006 rate of opioid painkiller overdoses was significantly higher than in the rest of the country. Between 2004 and 2007, 1,668 people in Washington died of prescription opioid-related overdoses. Of those, 58.9 percent were male, 34.4 percent were 45 to 54 years old, and 45.4 percent were Medicaid clients.

The study found that Medicaid clients had a 5.7-fold increased risk of dying from a prescription opioid-related overdose. Methadone was involved in nearly two-thirds of those Medicaid client deaths.

It may be possible to minimize the risk by examining patterns of opioid prescribing to Medicaid clients and intervening with those who appear to misuse the drugs, the researchers concluded.

The study appears in the latest Morbidity and Mortality Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths involving prescription opioid painkillers are a major reason why the number of poisoning deaths in the United States nearly doubled from 1999 to 2006.


Dental Costs Lowest in Georgia and Ohio

Dental care for people in Georgia and Ohio costs almost $150 less than the U.S. average of $607 a year, says a federal government study released Thursday.

The average annual expenditure for dental care in Georgia was $466, while in Ohio it was $474, said the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Among the other findings from the analysis of average annual dental expenditures in the 10 states with the highest populations in 2006:

  • The highest proportion of residents with dental expenses (52.5 percent) was in Michigan and the lowest was in Texas (30 percent).
  • The national average for out-of-pocket payment for dental care was 49 percent. People in Florida paid more (62.5 percent) and those in Pennsylvania paid less (42 percent).
  • Nationally, private insurers paid 43 percent of all dental expenditures.


Chinese Drywall Contains Higher Chemical Content

Chinese-made drywall has higher amounts of some chemicals than American-made drywall, say U.S. government agencies that have investigated reports of health problems, foul smells and corrosion by owners of homes with the Chinese product.

The Environmental Protection Agency and other departments have analyzed the drywall and say further study is needed to determine if there's a direct link between the problems and the wallboard, the Associated Press reported.

During the peak of the U.S. housing boom, materials became scarce, and construction companies imported millions of pounds of Chinese-made drywall, which ended up in thousands of homes.


FDA Panel Recommends First Non-Drug Asthma Treatment

A new technology from a small California-based company should be approved as the first non-drug treatment for asthma, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended Wednesday.

Asthmatx's Alair System employs bronchial thermoplasty, which uses radiofrequency wave-generated heat to burn away lung tissue that impairs breathing and causes wheezing and coughing spasms, the Associated Press reported.

The radiofrequency waves are delivered via a catheter controlled by a respiratory specialist. The procedure, performed over three sessions of a half hour each, is appropriate only for adult patients with severe asthma that doesn't respond to drug treatment.

The FDA panel voted six to one to recommend approval of the new system under certain conditions, including long-term safety monitoring of patients, the AP reported. The FDA usually follows the advice of its advisory panels.

The Alair System is already approved in Europe. If the FDA does approve the system, it may be available in the United States in the first half of 2010.


California Gives $230 Million for Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cells are the focus of only four of 14 projects that received $230 million in grants from California's stem cell research program. The other projects use less controversial adult stem cells or conventional drugs designed to kill cancer stem cells, which are believed to give rise to tumors.

Wednesday's announcement about the funding to state universities and companies is seen as tacit acknowledgement that it will be a long time before the full potential of human embryonic stem cells in treating human diseases is achieved, The New York Times reported.

Recipients of the grants are supposed to have a therapy ready for initial human testing within four years.

People don't care about what type of stem cells are used as long as researchers find treatments for diseases such as cancer and AIDS, according to officials of the 10-year, $3 billion program that was launched by California in 2004, The Times reported.

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Posted: October 2009