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Health Highlights: June 18, 2006

U.K. Hospital May OK Face Transplants Protestors Demand Better Care for Those Exposed to 9/11 Dust Separated Twins' Condition Deemed Stable Officials Warn of Medicare Scams Dutch Surgeons Perform New Heartburn Surgery

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

U.K. Hospital May OK Face Transplants

A British plastic surgeon plans to offer partial face transplant surgery to four patients, a London hospital said Sunday.

Neil Hubands, a spokesman for the Royal Free Hospital, said the hospital's ethics committee will decide Wednesday on Dr. Peter Butler's request to perform the procedures at the hospital.

Last November, Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire became the first person to undergo partial face transplant after losing much of her lower face to a dog mauling. She has since slowly recovered from the 15-hour surgery and is regaining facial function.

Hubands said the ethics committee has already given Butler permission to begin preliminary work, such as psychological assessments of candidate patients. But he said the transplants, if approved, would not be done "for a considerable time. There is an awful lot of work to be done still, there are no patients lined up to be operated on," he told the AP. Patient selection could take a year, Hubands noted.

Speaking with The Observer newspaper, Butler said that, "We have done everything we can to prepare for this surgery, and we would like to go ahead -- at some point the jump has to be made and people have to say yes. The time is right for this surgery."

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Protestors Demand Better Care for Those Exposed to 9/11 Dust

Over 200 people rallied at New York City's ground zero Saturday to protest what they say is the U.S. government's failure to care for those whose health was affected by airborne contaminants at the site of the 9/11 attacks.

"Our goal is very simple," said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York City Democrat. "We want everyone exposed to the deadly toxins monitored and everyone who is sick treated."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined the air at ground zero safe to breathe in the days following the attacks. But experts have since questioned that conclusion. Many of those gathered Saturday said their health had been seriously impaired since breathing in fumes and airborne toxins, the New York Times reported.

Maloney and others are demanding better recognition of 9/11-linked illness and improved health care benefits for those affected. The government has set aside over $100 million for the screening and care of ground zero workers, but Maloney said that amount doesn't begin to cover expected costs for tens of thousands of workers.

Speaking at the rally yesterday was Joseph Zadroga, whose son James -- a 34-year-old New York City police detective -- died in January from heart and lung complications. A New Jersey medical examiner concluded that Zadroga's death was "directly related to the 9/11 incident."

"I really believe that my son would be alive today if they took care of him right after 9/11," Zadroga told the Times.

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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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