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Can common bacterium lead to heart attacks?

A dozen research centers around the country are testing a novel concept in heart disease: that a relatively common bacterium could somehow damage blood vessels and lead to heart attacks, the nation's No.1 killer.

Under the program, people who already have suffered a heart attack will be given an antibiotic treatment to blunt the effects of an infection from chlamydia pneumoniae.They then will be monitored to see whether the treatment modifies the progression of coronary artery disease. This type of chlamydia can cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections in some individuals, although in many others it causes few, if any, symptoms.

Research has shown a higher prevalence of severe coronary artery disease and heart attacks in people who have shown a higher-than-normal antibody response to infection with the germ, said cardiologist Yoseph Shalev of Sinai Samaritan Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Such people were two to three times more likely to have another cardiac event than those who had little antibody response to chlamydia.

This finding led some heart specialists to hypothesize that people who have an exaggerated response to the germ also have accelerated progression of coronary artery disease, or CAD.

Coronary artery disease is a process by which the blood vessels feeding blood to the heart muscle become clogged and narrowed over time, with cellular and fatty deposits on the inside of the vessels. This reduces or stops blood flow through that artery. If that happens, a heart attack occurs.

Coronary artery disease is a serious public health problem, afflicting an estimated 13.7 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association. It is estimated that nearly 500,000 people will die of heart attacks directly attributed to coronary artery disease this year, according to the association.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service