Bacterial Resistance to Penicillin Rising

The bacteria that cause pneumonia, meningitis and other serious illnesses are becoming increasingly resistant to penicillin, federal health officials said yesterday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said that in 1997, 25 percent of the illnesses caused by streptococcus pneumoniae organisms were resistant to the antibiotic. The rate was 14 percent in 1993-94.

The data came from a CDC study of hospitals in seven states with a total population of 16 million. The prevalence of drug-resistant pneumonia varied from 15.3 percent in Maryland to 38.3 percent in Tennessee.

Although the study did not address the reason for the increase or the geographical discrepancy, Daniel Feikin of the CDC said one of the leading factors in the increase in antibiotic resistance is overuse.

Heart Disease Becoming Less Lethal

Heart disease is still by far the biggest killer of Americans, but it is killing fewer people now than it did 40 years ago, government researchers said.

The decline is mostly due to anti-smoking efforts, but better drugs and other treatments and an improvement in diet are also responsible, the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

"Since 1950, age-adjusted death rates from cardiovascular disease have declined 60 percent, representing one of the most important public health achievements of the 20th century," the report stated.

Deaths from heart disease peaked at 307.4 per 100,000 people in 1950 before falling to 134.6 per 100,000 people in 1996, the latest year for which figures are available. Stroke rates are down 70 percent since 1950, the CDC said.

The report noted that 42 percent of the population smoked in 1965, but in 1995 25 percent did. People have also been able to get their blood pressure and cholesterol levels down, mainly with drugs but also with diet and exercise. And although Americans are fatter than ever -- 55 percent are overweight or obese -- they are eating better, the report said.

Narcolepsy Linked to Genetic Flaw in Brain

Scientists say they have discovered a genetic flaw deep in the brain that causes narcolepsy, the disorder that makes people fall asleep without warning. An estimated 135,000 Americans have narcolepsy, and its cause has been a mystery.

Two groups of scientists, working independently, found that narcoleptics' overwhelming urge to fall asleep may result from a glitch in signals sent between cells in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates appetite and other basic drives.

The genetic foul-up was documented only in dogs and mice. But researchers say they are confident that a similar defect will be shown to be at fault in some human cases.

The new research, conducted by scientists at Stanford University in California and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is being published in today's and the Aug. 20 issues of the journal Cell.