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Health Highlights: Jan. 31, 2007

Anti-HIV Gel Studies Halted Quality Care Improves Lives of Those Chronically Ill Fla. Governor to Back Stem Cell Research Merck Pushing for Mandatory HPV Vaccination L.A. Restaurants Urged to Voluntarily Cut Trans Fats White House Promises $25 Million for Ground Zero Workers

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

Anti-HIV Gel Studies Halted

Two studies of an anti-HIV vaginal gel were stopped this week because findings suggest that the gel may actually increase the risk of infection, the Associated Press reported.

A statement from the World Health Organization said the results of the studies in Africa and India are "a disappointing and unexpected setback" in efforts to find a simple way for women to reduce their risk of being infected by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

In the two studies, researchers were testing a gel called Ushercell, which contains a cotton-based compound called cellulose sulfate. A study of 1,500 women in South Africa, Benin, Uganda and India was halted after it was noted that the rate of HIV infection was higher among women using the gel than among those using a placebo, the AP reported.

That prompted researchers to stop a second study of 1,700 women in Nigeria. The decision was made as a precaution. No link between the gel and increased risk of HIV infection had been noted in the second study.

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Quality Care Improves Lives of Those Chronically Ill

People with chronic health problems have better health outcomes and quality of life when they receive high-quality outpatient medical care, according to researchers from the RAND Corporation and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Their study, the first to make this link, appears in the February issue of the journal Health Services Research.

Over 30 months, the researchers evaluated the care received by 963 adults with heart disease, asthma, emphysema or diabetes. Those who received better quality care experienced the least amount of health decline over 2 1/2 years.

"Our findings show that the quality of medical care can have a noticeable impact on the daily lives of patients. Examining the quality of health care is not simply an academic exercise," study lead author Dr. Katherine Kahn, a UCLA physician and a RAND researcher, said in a prepared statement.

RAND is a nonprofit research organization.

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Fla. Governor to Back Stem Cell Research

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist says he'll recommend that the state spend $20 million on stem cell research, but that no funding be provided for research that requires the destruction of embryos.

The $20 million should be used for stem cells collected from adults, umbilical cord and amniotic fluid donated by pregnant women, Crist said Wednesday. He said he won't recommend paying for embryonic stem cell research because many state lawmakers and others oppose destroying embryos in order to harvest stem cells, the Associated Press reported.

Embryonic stem cell research is believed to hold the most promise for developing new medical treatments.

Crist, a Republican, was not clear on whether he supports or opposes embryonic stem cell research, the AP reported.

"I know it gives angst for some. I think we can do it in a way that doesn't cause that kind of angst," he said at The Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session, a gathering of newspaper editors.

Two competing stem cell research bills will be dealt with by Florida lawmakers this year. One mirrors Crist's proposal while the other proposes that embryonic stem cell research receive some of the $20 million funding, the AP reported.

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Merck Pushing for Mandatory HPV Vaccination

Drug maker Merck & Co. is helping finance campaigns to get states to pass legislation that would make it mandatory for girls as young as 11 or 12 to receive a new vaccine that protects against sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), the Associated Press reported.

Merck makes the vaccine, called Gardasil, which guards against strains of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. Currently, at least 18 states are debating whether to make the vaccine mandatory for schoolgirls.

The drug company has given money to Women in Government, an advocacy group that includes female state legislators throughout the United States. Many of the state bills advocating the use of Gardasil have been introduced by members of Women in Government, the AP reported.

Some parents'-rights and conservative groups charge that Merck is engaging in underhanded lobbying. These groups say making the vaccine mandatory would encourage premarital sex and interfere with how parents raise their children.

But Merck said it has been open about the fact that it provides funding to Women in Government, the AP said.

Gardasil was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2006. An FDA advisory panel recommended that all girls get the vaccine at ages 11 or 12, before they are sexually active.

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L.A. Restaurants Urged to Voluntarily Cut Trans Fats

Under a plan released Tuesday, restaurants in Los Angeles and the surrounding county will be urged to voluntarily phase out artery-clogging trans fats over the next 18 months.

City and county officials said the plan could include incentives, such as a window decal that restaurants might use to declare their trans fat-free status to customers, the Associated Press reported.

The plan comes after local officials learned last week that state law prevented them from banning trans fats, or from forcing restaurants to display nutritional information on their menus.

The California Restaurant Association supports the voluntary approach, spokesman Andrew Casana told the AP.

In December, New York City became the first American city to pass a law banning all trans fats in all restaurants. The ban takes effect in mid-2008. Similar laws are being discussed by several U.S. cities.

A number of major restaurant chains are also taking steps to reduce trans fats in their foods.

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White House Promises $25 Million for Ground Zero Workers

After intense lobbying by New York members of Congress, the White House said Tuesday that it will provide $25 million for the care and treatment of sick World Trade Center rescue workers, The New York Times reported.

The total cost of treating all Ground Zero rescue workers who require medical care after being exposed to toxic dust is more than $250 million, according to a preliminary federal government estimate.

New York lawmakers say this $25 million will help keep two treatment programs operating through the end of the year. Last month, the two programs warned they were running out of money, the Times reported.

Last year, the same group of politicians convinced Congress to provide $75 million to help care for sick World Trade Center rescue workers, but that money is running out. Sen. Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, has said a $1.9 billion program is needed to help sick rescue workers.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens, said, "I would have hoped that we would not have had to wait five years and a number of visible deaths before we got the administration to react, but it is an important step forward."

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