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Health Highlights: July 24, 2009

Senate Puts Off Vote on Health-Care Legislation Poll Still Finds Public Support for Health-Care Reform Study Looks at Implanted Pig Cells to Treat Type 1 Diabetes Swine Flu Fears Prompt Arab States to Limit Pilgrimage

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

Senate Puts Off Vote on Health-Care Legislation

Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate have postponed a vote on health-care reform until after Congress returns from its August break, despite President Barack Obama's push to tackle the country's $2.4 trillion medical-care system before the traditional summertime recess.

"It's better to have a product based on quality and thoughtfulness rather than try to jam something through," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who made the announcement Thursday, the Associated Press reported.

The rush to enact the complex legislation had riled Republicans, and Reid said the delay would provide time for a possible compromise, the AP said.

Reid said that the Senate Finance Committee would finalize its version of the bill before adjourning. Separate legislation already approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, known as HELP, would be merged with the Finance bill, according to the AP.

But some lawmakers predict difficulty in merging the bills because the Finance Committee is seeking bipartisan approval for its measure, whereas Democratic votes secured passage of the HELP bill.

Reid said that senior Republicans working on the Finance bill had asked for more time to work out a compromise, the AP noted. "The decision was made to give them more time, and I don't think it's unreasonable," he said.

Obama appeared on prime-time television Wednesday night to make another appeal for health-care reform.


Poll Still Finds Public Support for Health-Care Reform

While a majority of Americans still think health-care reform is needed now, some of that support has wavered slightly as Congress wrestles with the details of producing a reform package, according to the July Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.

Fifty-six percent of Americans continue to believe that health reform is more important than ever, despite the country's economic problems. And by a better than two-to-one margin (51 percent to 23 percent), Americans think the country would be better off if Congress and President Barack Obama enacted health reform, the poll found.

But concerns raised during the Congressional debate appear to be influencing some people's views. For instance, a larger share of the public is more worried that Congress and the president will pass a bill that's bad for their family (54 percent) than that health-care reform won't happen this year (39 percent). And while a majority of Americans still favor reform now, the percentage of people who hold that view has dropped from 61 percent to 56 percent since June, the poll found.

The proportion of people who say passage of health-care reform would make things worse for their own family, although relatively small, has doubled since February (from 11 percent to 21 percent), as has the proportion of Americans who say the country would be worse off if health-care reform passed -- from 12 percent to 23 percent, according to the poll.

And while the estimated $1 trillion price tag over 10 years for health-care reform has been a sticking point for many in Congress, it seems to be a little less worrisome for those polled. When asked if $1 trillion was too high, too little, or about right, 42 percent said it was too high, 36 percent said it was the right amount, and 9 percent said it was too little.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., that produces analysis and information on health issues.


Study Looks at Implanted Pig Cells to Treat Type 1 Diabetes

In a trial that could one day lead to a way to slow the ravages of type 1 diabetes, a New Zealand company announced Thursday that it plans to implant newborn pig cells into eight people with the blood sugar disease.

The Associated Press reported that these cells produce insulin that the researchers are hoping can be used to lower blood sugar levels in these volunteers. However, a company official told the wire service that such a treatment will not eliminate all the symptoms of type 1 diabetes indefinitely, which include blindness, premature heart disease and poor blood circulation that can lead to the amputation of limbs.

Critics have also expressed concern that putting these pig cells into humans might introduce a new virus into the human population, a fear that company officials said is unfounded.

"There is no evidence of a risk of retrovirus infection," Bob Elliott, medical director of Living Cell Technologies, told AP. "Nobody has developed a retrovirus."

Elliott stressed that the pigs being used in this trial come from isolated islands south of New Zealand, and are being kept in a sterile environment. He also noted that he has run two previous trials, the first with six patients in New Zealand in 1995-1996. A Russian trial with 10 patients began two years ago. In those trials, the cells that weren't rejected produced insulin for roughly a year, although the cells in one patient continued generating the hormone for 12 years.

The pig cells that will be implanted in this latest trial are coated in a membrane made from seaweed, which will eliminate the need for immunosuppressant drugs, according to company officials.

With type 1 diabetes, the body mistakenly attacks the pancreas to the point where the organ stops producing the insulin needed to break down sugars in the blood and convert it to energy.


Swine Flu Fears Prompt Arab States to Limit Pilgrimage

Swine flu fears have led health officials in Arab states to decree that the very young, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions may not attend this year's hajj, the pilgrimage devout Muslims can take to Saudi Arabia each year, the Associated Press reported.

In a meeting held Wednesday, the ministers decided against an outright cancellation of the annual hajj, which draws millions of Muslims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in late November. Instead, the ministers hope that by excluding those most vulnerable to infection they can minimize the impact of H1N1 infections that might arise with so many people coming into close contact at one time.

If an H1N1 vaccine becomes available before the start of the hajj, pilgrims will be required to provide proof of immunization before they receive a visa for the pilgrimage, the health ministers added.

Debate has raged throughout the Muslim world on the advisability of cancelling this year's hajj due to the swine flu outbreak. According to the World Health Organization, there are 952 reported cases of swine flu in the eastern Mediterranean region, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan. One Egyptian woman has died from swine flu after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the AP reported.

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