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The Top 10 Health Stories of 2006

Vaccines, Unsafe Food, Inhaled Insulin: WebMD Picks the Most Important Medical News of the Year

5. Stents: Safe as We Thought? continued...

Then there was balloon angioplasty. It calls for a doctor to thread a catheter into a blocked artery. The catheter inflates a balloon that opens the blocked area.

But the balloon-opened artery sometimes collapses again. So doctors used wire-mesh tubes -- stents -- to prop the artery open.

Bare-metal stents sometimes get blocked by scar tissue. This led to the invention of stents coated with drugs that keeps the scar tissue from forming.

Now it's clear that drug-coated stents have their own problem. To work properly, a lining of new blood-vessel cells have to heal over the inside of the stent. Drug-coated stents delay this process. Blood clots can form on the unhealed surface of the stent. This means that in rare cases, drug-eluting stents cause heart attacks and sudden death.

How often does this happen? Deepak L. Bhatt, MD, associate director of The Cleveland Clinic's heart center, tells WebMD that patients "are not dropping in droves due to drug-coated stents."

"The absolute risk to an individual patient is less than one in 200," Bhatt says. But "with a million stents going in each year in the U.S. and twice that number worldwide, this is not trivial."

Fortunately, a combination of two anticlotting drugs -- aspirin and Plavix -- cuts the risk from drug-coated stents. Doctors used to wean stent patients off these drugs after six months. Now studies suggest that patients may have to stay on the drugs for at least a year.

But this solution creates its own problem. Patients with bleeding problems -- or those who need surgery -- can't tolerate long-term anticlotting treatment.

New kinds of stents eventually will solve this problem. And if history is any guide, they'll pose new challenges, too.

6. MRSA Infection: A Growing Problem

Dangerous, drug-resistant staph infections are a huge problem for hospitals. That problem is getting worse. But the big news this year is that the infections are spreading outside the hospital.

The bad bug is called MRSA -- methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, named for an important antibiotic that usually kills staph germs.

It doesn't kill this one. Neither do other traditional antibiotics. And now MRSA is the most common skin infection seen in city emergency rooms.

Researchers call this bug community-acquired MRSA. The good news is that there are still antibiotics that work against it. And many patients get over the infection simply by having their boils or abscesses cut open and drained by a doctor -- don't try this at home.

The bad news is that many MRSA infections are tough to treat. Some scientists think MRSA infections may get nastier as the bad bug evolves into a worse bug. Already -- in rare cases -- MRSA can be a flesh-eating infection.

Scientists are hard at work on an MRSA vaccine. But that's years away. Meanwhile, MRSA infections are popping up all over -- as seen in a CDC report of MRSA infections from tattoos.

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