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Health Highlights: June 17, 2006

Separated Twins' Condition Deemed Stable Officials Warn of Medicare Scams Dutch Surgeons Perform New Heartburn Surgery Iowa Mumps Outbreak Under Control Blacks Hear Better Than Whites: Study

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

Separated Twins' Condition Deemed Stable

Two 10-month-old, formerly conjoined twin girls were successfully separated in a marathon surgery in Los Angeles Thursday and are now in stable condition, the Associated Press reported.

Steve Rutledge, a spokesman for Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, said Regina and Renata Salinas are resting on ventilators in intensive care cribs, with no signs of infection or other problems. He said doctors do not yet know when the Mexican-born girls might leave the ICU.

The surgery to separate the girls took almost a full day as surgeons separated and divided up bone and organs shared by the twins. The girls -- who were fused together from the lower chest to the pelvis -- only shared one large intestine, so doctors made the decision to give that organ to Renata. They said it is possible Regina may require a colostomy later in life.

Conjoined twins are extremely rare. In the U.S., experts estimate that such births occur once in every 200,000 live deliveries.

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Officials Warn of Medicare Scams

Seniors are falling prey to telephone scams where callers ask for banking information in exchange for enrollment in Medicare's Part D drug plan, officials at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Friday.

"We are taking further steps to prevent, identify, and help law enforcement officials apprehend these scam artists," CMS head Dr. Mark B. McClellan said in a statement.

Medicare Part D enrollment for 2006 officially closed May 15, and enrollment for 2007 does not begin until the fall.

"Part D enrollment has ended. Unless you've just become eligible for Medicare, you should be leery about people telling you to sign up for a new Medicare drug plan," Vicki Gottlich, senior policy advisor for the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C., told the Boston Globe.

"If someone calls you, don't give them your Social Security number, your credit card number, or bank account number," Gottlich advised. Officials at CMS also noted that it is against Medicare rules for marketers to go into residences uninvited, or ask for bank account numbers or other personal data over the phone. Seniors who suspect fraud can call CMS at 877-772-3379.

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Dutch Surgeons Perform New Heartburn Surgery

A team of Dutch surgeons performed a new form of surgery on Friday to ease gastric reflux, the Associated Press reported.

Unlike standard surgeries, the new procedure avoids the need for an external incision in the abdomen. Instead, doctors conducted the camera-guided procedure via a tube threaded down the patient's throat into the stomach.

Tiny, newly developed robotic tools performed the surgery, which involved pulling together part of the stomach lining to form a kind of valve at the bottom of the esophagus.

Gastric reflux, which affects millions of Americans, is caused when stomach acids splash up past a weakened esophageal sphincter into the esophagus.

One expert said it's not clear whether this new surgery -- developed by Seattle-based EndoGastric Solutions, Inc. -- will become the new standard, since other techniques are also being tested.

"What's not clear right now is which of the different approaches - and there are several - will win out," Dr. Larry Brandt, chief of the gastrointestinal department at Montefiore Medical Center, New York City, told the AP.

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Iowa Mumps Outbreak Under Control

Health officials in Iowa said on Friday that the number of cases of mumps in the state had dropped considerably in the past few weeks, suggesting that this year's unusual outbreak has been contained.

As of Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 1,938 confirmed or probable cases of mumps in the state, up by just 14 cases from the previous week.

As reported by the Associated Press, Iowa was the worst-hit of a number of 12 Midwest states affected by the mumps outbreak, which together reported 3,200 cases. No deaths and few hospitalizations were reported from the usually mild illness, which hit colleges especially hard.

Experts are blaming the outbreak on the failure of many American children to get booster shots after receiving their first mumps vaccine as babies. To fill that gap, Iowa health officials have offered free vaccination to all 18-to-46-year-olds.

"We had many more people vaccinated, so the number of susceptible people went down," Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, state epidemiologist, told the AP.

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Blacks Hear Better Than Whites: Study

Blacks hear better than whites, woman hear better than men, and despite all the ear-blasting devices of modern electronics, hearing levels in the United States are about the same as they were 35 years ago, a government study has found.

The racial and sex differences confirmed earlier studies that had reached the same conclusion, but the new study by scientists with the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was the largest national sample yet to report such a finding, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Some scientists believe that higher melanin levels in blacks may play a role in how the body removes harmful chemical compounds caused by damage to the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear. In this way, higher melanin may protect blacks from noise-induced hearing loss as years go by.

Elliott Berger, an Indianapolis-based hearing protection expert, said that genetics or differences in noise exposure may explain the difference between women and men. "Boys have typically done noisier activities," Berger told AP.

The study looked at more than 5,000 people who underwent hearing tests from 1999 through 2004 as part of a comprehensive, annual federal health survey that included physical examinations. The 10- to 20-minute test involved wearing headphones and pressing a button when a tone was heard. Frequency and decibel levels were also measured.

Women were more sensitive to higher frequency tones in the test. They could hear higher tones at 11 to 22 decibels, compared with 19 to 32 decibels for men, AP reported. The results closely followed those collected from hearing tests conducted from 1971 to 1975.

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