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Health Highlights: March 18 2006

Nonprofit Hospitals Get Renewed Congressional Scrutiny Egyptian Woman's Death Attributed to H5N1 Bird Flu Two More U.S. Women Die After Using Abortion Pill Problems Plague U.S. Anthrax Vaccine Program Alzheimer's Drug Study Causes Concern

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

Nonprofit Hospitals Get Renewed Congressional Scrutiny

Members of the U.S. Congress who have oversight into charitable institutions have begun to take a look at whether nonprofit hospitals are doing enough charity work.

The New York Times reports that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who heads the Senate Finance Committee, is expanding his committee's oversight of tax exempt organizations such as the United Way and American Red Cross to the operations of nonprofit hospitals to determine whether those medical institutions' tax exempt status is justified.

The goal would be for the government to adopt legislation that would clarify and enforce tax exempt standards for nonprofit hospitals, the Times reports. The newspaper quotes the U.S commissioner of internal revenue Mark Everson as saying that federal tax officials have often found little difference between nonprofit and for-profit hospitals "in their operations, their attention to the benefit of the community or their levels of charity care."

The question of reviewing nonprofit hospitals' tax exempt status was begun in 2005 by U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Thomas contends that "less and less has been required for hospitals to maintain tax-exempt status" since 1969, the newspaper reports.

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Egyptian Woman's Death Attributed to H5N1 Bird Flu

A day after Israel confirmed its first outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu, initial tests on the body of an Egyptian woman indicate the same disease killed her.

The Associated Press reports that a spokesman for the World Health Organization attributed the death, which occurred Friday, to the H5N1 strain. The official said that many people who had been in contact with the woman were also being tested to see if they were ill. But there were no indications that the virus had been transmitted to the human victim by another human, a possibility health officials believe could lead to a worldwide pandemic.

WHO statistics put the number of human deaths at 97, excluding the Egyptian woman, since avian flu was first discovered in 2003, the wire service reported. Two-thirds of those deaths have occurred in Indonesia and Vietnam, the A.P. cites the WHO as saying.

Meanwhile, according to Radio Israel, the Agriculture Ministry confirmed that H5N1 caused the deaths of more than 11,000 turkeys on two farms in the Negev Desert and another farm near Jerusalem.

Israeli officials have ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of turkeys and imposed quarantines around all three farms as part of the effort to control the spread of the virus, the Associated Press reported.

Five people have been admitted to hospitals and are being observed for symptoms of bird flu, but officials said they did not think the patients had contracted the disease.

The H5N1 virus was detected in Egypt last month and it's possible that the disease may have entered Israel from that country, said Israeli Agriculture Minister Zeev Boim.

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Two More U.S. Women Die After Using Abortion Pill

Two more women have died after using the RU-486 abortion pill, U.S. health regulators said Friday in warning doctors to watch for a rare but deadly infection implicated in earlier deaths of four others who used the pill.

Since 2000, at least six women in the United States have died after taking RU-486, but the Food and Drug Administration can't prove the drug was to blame in any of those cases, the Associated Press reported.

In four cases in California, women who took the pill died from sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream. Those women did not follow FDA-approved instructions for using the drug.

The FDA statement also emphasized that abortion providers should stick to the officially approved regimen when giving RU-486, Mifeprex, and an accompanying drug, misoprostol, The New York Times reported.

The FDA instructions call for women to swallow three tablets of Mifeprex, followed by two tablets of misoprostol two days later. In the California cases, the final two tablets were inserted vaginally instead of being swallowed by the women. This "off-label" use does not have FDA approval but is widely recommended by abortion clinics, the AP reported.

The FDA said it hasn't confirmed the cause of death in the two latest cases, but an agency spokeswoman told the AP that the circumstances and symptoms matched those of the California cases.

Mifeprex has been used in more than 500,000 medical abortions in the United States since its approval in September 2000. The risks of death from infection after using the pill are similar to the risks after surgical abortions or childbirth, officials said according to the Times report.

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Problems Plague U.S. Anthrax Vaccine Program

The U.S. government's push to develop a new anthrax vaccine is mired in problems and won't achieve a November deadline to stockpile 25 million doses of a new vaccine, the Washington Post reports.

VaxGen Inc., the California company in charge of the $1 billion project, has reported failure in a major human test and has fallen at least a year behind schedule. The company told the Post that it has isolated the problem with the new vaccine and is well on the way to correcting it.

Even so, there's no chance the company will be able to meet the November deadline to deliver 25 million doses of the new vaccine into the U.S. national stockpile. That means that VaxGen will default on its contract with the government, unless federal authorities grant the contract extension requested by the company.

The delay in the VaxGen program has prompted the U.S. government to buy five million doses of an older, controversial anthrax vaccine, which is enough to treat two million people, the Post reported.

Officials at the U.S. Health and Human declined to discuss the VaxGen situation, but noted they've stockpiled enough antibiotics to treat 40 million people after a large-scale anthrax bioterrorism attack.

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Alzheimer's Drug Study Causes Concern

Some health experts are concerned about a study that found an unusual number of deaths among patients taking Aricept, the most popular drug to treat Alzheimer's disease.

The study included 974 patients with dementia related to heart disease. There were 11 deaths among patients taking Aricept but no deaths among patients taking a placebo. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is analyzing the study results, The New York Times reported.

The study was conducted by Eisai, a Japanese pharmaceutical company that sells Aricept, which is also sold by Pfizer. An Eisai spokesperson said Aricept is safe and the company is not recommending any changes to the drug's label.

Some experts say the findings suggest that Aricept and related drugs may increase the risk of heart disease. They say that's a potential cause for concern because Aricept provides, at best, only mild benefits for Alzheimer's patients, the Times reported.

Last year, a British study concluded that Aricept does not delay the onset of disability or the need for nursing-home care for Alzheimer's patients. The study said the drug provided little overall benefit and was not cost-effective.

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