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Health Highlights: Dec. 22 , 2002

Another Advancement for Leukemia Drug Bush Gets Smallpox Vaccine Surgically Separated Twins Spending Christmas in the Hospital Airline Passengers Win, Lose Right to Sue Over Blood Clots Medicare Payments to Docs to Be Cut 4.4 Percent Herbal Tranquilizer Banned in the U.K.

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

Another Advancement for Leukemia Drug

Gleevec, a drug that showed significant results in combating a rare and mostly fatal type of leukemia, has passed another hurdle.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced that Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) has been approved for the "first-line treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), an uncommon life-threatening form of cancer -- affecting about 40,000 people in the United States."

First-line treatment means that Gleevec can be administered after CML has been diagnosed. The drug was originally approved in 2001 under the FDA's accelerated approval regulations.The federal agency believed more time was needed to determine whether Gleevec would continue to be as effective in arresting the leukemia as it had been when it was used after other drugs had been tried.

"Today's approval represents continued efforts by government and industry to provide patients suffering from CML with additional therapies that have proven safe and effective through on-going research and clinical trials," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark B. McClellan. "With this new use, even more patients will have access to this product earlier on in their fight against cancer," he said in an FDA press release.

Approval was based on a clinical trial of 1,106 patients with newly diagnosed chronic phase CML, according to the FDA. Half were given Gleevec and half were given a standard drug therapy. The results: The patients treated with Gleevec after one year had significantly fewer cancerous cells in their blood and bone marrow. The rate of progression of disease was also decreased in the patients treated with Gleevec, according to the FDA.

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Bush Gets Smallpox Vaccine

Saying that he wanted to be among the first to get a smallpox vaccination, President Bush was inoculated yesterday before leaving Washington for an extended holiday vacation. As it was widely reported in the media, Bush said he was keeping a promise he made when he ordered smallpox vaccinations for a half-million U.S. troops, according to wire reports.

The President had no immediate adverse reaction to the vaccine, which can, in rare cases, cause smallpox to occur.

The government plans to give the vaccine to 10 million emergency workers, such as medical people and police officers, in 2003. Officials are leaving the decision up to the general U.S. population as to whether they want the vaccine beginning in 2004.

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Surgically Separated Twins Spending Christmas in the Hospital

Their family had hoped they would be well enough to return to their home in Guatemala for the holidays.

But the twins who had been born co-joined at the head and surgically separated earlier this year still aren't ready to leave their Los Angeles hospital.

"We're all disappointed for the family, that they won't be home for Christmas," pediatric nursing director Clarice Marsh told the Associated Press."But the nursing staff has really grown close to the twins and looks forward to celebrating the holiday with them."

Maria de Jesus and Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez, who are now 17 months old, underwent a 23-hour operation last fall to separate the tissue that joined them at the skull.

Dr. Jorge Lazareff said he expects the girls to return home either the first or second week of January. He said they are in excellent clinical condition.

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Airline Passengers Win, Lose Right to Sue Over Blood Clots

Airline passengers seeking to sue over blood clots that reportedly develop from sitting in an airline seat have just been given a mixed verdict from the courts in virtually identical cases.

An Australian judge on Friday gave a group of plaintiffs the right to sue airlines for damages, while on the same day a London judge decided the plaintiffs cannot try to make the airlines pay, according to the BBC .

In a suit against 27 airlines, the U.K. families had claimed the airlines failed to warn them of the risks of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on long-haul flights. The British High Court landmark ruling found that the blood clots, often referred to as "traveller's thrombosis," do not constitute an "accident" under the Warsaw convention. The 1929 treaty makes airlines liable for damages only in the case of an accident.

The ruling came only hours after the Australian courts decided DVT victims could sue the airlines under the same treaty.

The case involved 59-year-old Brian Povey, who had taken both Qantas and BA to court, claiming he was hospitalized and forced to give up work after developing DVT from a three-day business trip from Sydney to London. The full case -- involving 500 claimants -- is now expected to go ahead next year.

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Medicare Payments to Docs to Be Cut 4.4 Percent

Medicare payments to doctors would be cut 4.4 percent next year, after a 5.4 percent cut this year, the Bush Administration has announced.

Federal officials predicted that doctors would, as a result, be less willing to accept new Medicare patients, The New York Times reports.

If the cuts are not reversed, Congress and the administration will face the wrath of two politically potent constituencies, elderly voters and doctors who care for the elderly. But administration officials are desperately trying to control federal health costs, which they see as a major factor that contributes to federal budget deficits.

Outraged doctors faulted both Congress and the administration for failing to avert the cuts, which start on March 1.

And the Department of Health and Human Services said the cuts might "cause fewer physicians to accept new Medicare patients" and could prompt doctors to increase their charges to some of the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries, the Times reports.

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Herbal Tranquilizer Banned in U.K.

Britain's top health officials are banning the sale of remedies containing the herb Kava-kava after it was linked to four deaths.

The herbal medicine, used as a natural tranquilizer, was voluntarily removed from the shelves a year ago after almost 70 cases of suspected liver damage associated with it were reported, according to the BBC.

The UK's Committee on Safety of Medicines and the Medicines Commission have now recommended a ban, which will be enacted on Jan. 13 and reviewed in two years' time.

Health officials said their investigations had been unable to determine what might put people at risk of adverse reactions to Kava-kava or how it damages the liver.

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