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Health Highlights: March 31, 2002

Pope Close to Knee Surgery More Ski Areas May Require Helmets for Kids U.S. Quietly OKs Alzheimer's Medicare Coverage Calif. Man Contracts Human Rabies Anti-Cavity Vaccine in the Works Ruling May Put Medical Marijuana Initiative on D.C. Ballots HIV Drug Linked to Nerve Disorder

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

Pope Close to Knee Surgery

After a life of prayer, it's perhaps not surprising that Pope John Paul II is in need of knee surgery.

The Vatican confirmed last month that the pontiff suffers from the joint disease osteoarthritis in his right knee and a Rome surgeon said today that he has been contacted by the pope regarding the possibility of knee surgery to remedy the problem, reports the Associated Press.

The 81-year-old pope's knee pain is reportedly so significant that it has prevented him from participating in Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday masses. A Rome newspaper reported that John Paul will undergo the knee surgery shortly, but the AP said the surgeon could only confirm that he had been "put on alert."

John Paul has had trouble walking since undergoing hip surgery in 1994 following a fall in his bathroom.

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More Ski Areas May Require Helmets for Kids

First it was Aspen, and now Vail Resorts, which manages mountains in many of Colorado's most popular ski areas, is considering making helmet use by child skiers mandatory on its slopes.

The announcement follows the most deadly season on Colorado ski slopes on record, with 15 people dying in ski accidents.

Vail Resorts, which, in addition to Vail, operates slopes in Keystone, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge, Colo., says the decision is being driven in part out of concern that out-of-state visiting families may not be aware that helmet use by children is becoming a standard safety measure, reports the Associated Press.

Aspen Skiing Co. announced earlier this month that beginning next season it would require helmet use by all children under the age of 12 entering its ski schools. Currently, only children under 6 must wear helmets.

Doctors say a helmet likely saved the life of a 5-year-old Chicago boy who skied into a tree at Aspen Highlands this season.

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U.S. Quietly OKs Alzheimer's Medicare Coverage

Without fanfare or even a public announcement, the federal government has quietly started to authorize Medicare to cover costs related to treatment of Alzheimer's disease, the New York Times reports.

Claims for Medicare reimbursement related to Alzheimer's treatment were previously denied on the grounds that such patients were incapable of improvement, hence any expenses for treatment would likely be futile.

But with new research showing that improvement can be possible with treatments such as psychotherapy, physical and occupational therapy, federal officials say the Medicare coverage can now be justified.

There was no public announcement of the new policy -- companies that review Medicare claims simply received a memorandum late last year banning the policy of programming computers to reject Alzheimer's claims and further stating that contractors cannot deny claims because a person has Alzheimer's.

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Calif. Man Contracts Human Rabies

A 28-year-old Willows, Calif., man has been diagnosed with an exceptionally rare case of human rabies, the Associated Press reports.

Authorities say the unidentified man arrived at Enloe Medical Center, in Glenn County, with dehydration and vomiting. He began having seizures and is reportedly on life support.

The man was diagnosed with the disease on Friday and results of a second test conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are due later today.

It's not clear how the man contracted the disease, but officials say human rabies usually comes from contact with bats. There can be an incubation period from three weeks to three months.

There are typically only about one to three cases of human rabies in this country annually. The disease attacks the nervous system and health officials told the AP it is "invariably fatal."

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Anti-Cavity Vaccine in the Works

That chill many get upon hearing anything that even resembles the sound of a dental drill may be something the next generation never experiences if new research on a vaccine for cavities pans out.

And the news gets even better: The team of Boston researchers developing the vaccine says it wouldn't even require an injection, but just a spritz up the nose.

The Boston Globe reports that the researchers with that city's Forsyth Institute are far enough along in developing the vaccine that they expect to meet with three companies next month to arrange sponsorship of tests in humans.

The vaccine, which would be given to toddlers, works by disarming the bacteria that make the lactic acid that eats away at teeth.

Should the researchers get the funding they need to continue research, they say the vaccine could be available by the end of the decade.

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Ruling May Put Medical Marijuana Initiative on D.C. Ballots

District of Columbia voters may find themselves in the position of deciding whether to legalize marijuana for medical purposes thanks to a judge's decision this week, reports the Associated Press.

Supporters of the medical use for marijuana had requests to place the issue on D.C. ballots turned down by the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics, who cited a federal law known as the Barr Amendment.

The supporters, a group called the Marijuana Policy Project, sued the city and federal governments over the issue and, on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan granted the group's request for an injunction.

Sullivan banned the enforcement of the Barr Amendment, saying the law was unconstitutional and limits free speech.

The group still needs to get approval from the elections board and enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot in November.

If approved by voters, the initiative would change D.C. law to allow seriously ill patients to obtain and use marijuana if their physicians recommend it.

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HIV Drug Linked to Nerve Disorder

The Bristol-Myers Squibb Company is warning doctors that its HIV drug Zerit has been linked to an incurable nerve condition when taken with other HIV drugs.

In a letter from the company posted on the Food and Drug Administration's Web site on Friday, the company describes that some patients taking Zerit in combination with other HIV drugs developed a rare condition much like Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which a swelling of the nerves moves across the entire body.

The company does not give specifics of the cases, but says that "some cases were fatal," reports Bloomberg News.

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