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Health Highlights: May 14, 2006

Key Republican Opposes Medicare Drug Plan Late PenaltyJapan, Austria Report New Cases of Mad Cow Disease Cases of Bird Flu in Southeast Asia this year: Zero Tibetan Yoga to be Focus of Breast Cancer Study Disgraced Korean Stem Cell Scientist Indicted for Fraud

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

Key Republican Opposes Medicare Drug Plan Late Penalty

As the opportunity to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug program nears its Monday midnight deadline, a key Republican member of Congress has told the Associated Press she'd like to have a vote on eliminating the financial penalty for late enrollment.

Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee's subcommittee on health, told the wire service that she had talked to enough of her colleagues to believe Congress might vote to have the penalty waived. Those eligible for U.S. government insurance programs to help offset drug costs -- primarily older Americans -- have to sign up by midnight May 15, or they will have to pay a late charge for enrolling in the program after the deadline has passed.

Many Democrats in Congress have called for the deadline to extended, but Johnson's leadership position on Ways and Means may indicate that there's enough Republican support to waive the financial penalty or possibly even extend the deadline, the wire service reports.

Saying she plans to introduce legislation to eliminate the late charge, Johnson added, "The bottom line is this is a democracy, and the Congress responds to the people and shapes the program so it's good for them," according to the A.P.. The wire service also reports that Sen Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, hasn't ruled out efforts to keep the late penalty from remaining on the books.

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Japan, Austria Report New Cases of Mad Cow Disease

Mad cow disease has been found in two places on separate sides of the world, Austria and Japan.

The Associated Press reports that Japan's case of mad cow was its 26th, a five-year-old Holstein dairy cow near the city of Hokkaido. Austria's was its fourth, found on a farm that officials described as being in upper Austria.

In both cases, the infected animals were destroyed and their carcasses were incinerated. Austrian health officials also said all the cattle on the farm had been destroyed.

Ironically, the news of the latest case in Japan comes right before Japanese officials were to meet with U.S. representatives to discuss lifting a ban on U.S. beef imports because of two reported cases of the disease in the United States, the latest one in March 2006.

Mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encepalopathy BSE) has a human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), for which there is no cure. The United Kingdom has been hardest hit with 23 reported fatal cases between 2003 and 2004.

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Cases of Bird Flu in Southeast Asia this year: Zero

It may be too early to arrive at a conclusion, but the region where the deadly avian bird flu first erupted in 2003 has had no new human cases reported this year, leading health officials speculate that the virus may indeed have an end point.

The New York Times reports that the virus H5N1 hasn't been reported in any part of Southeast Asia in humans during the past 12 months, and no cases in poultry for the past six months, where it was first reported and claimed most of its victims, both avian and human.

The newspaper quotes Dr. David Nabarro, the United Nations' chief pandemic flu coordinator as saying, "In Thailand and Vietnam, we've had the most fabulous success stories." But Nabarro stopped short of saying the virus was dying out, the newspaper reported, adding he said he was "cautious in interpreting these shifts in patterns" because too little is known about how the disease spreads.

This news is particularly significant for these two countries, because Vietnam had almost half the human cases of avian flu worldwide, and there hasn't been a single reported case in either humans or poultry this year, the newspaper reported. Thailand, also particularly hard-hit, hasn't had a human case reported in nearly a year or an avian case in six months, the Times said.

A second significant development, the Times reports, is that birds migrating during the spring from Africa to Europe have not so far carried the H5N1 virus into Europe.

Since bird flu appeared in 2003, more than 100 people have died worldwide, and health experts say that all of them died after having been in contact with birds. This has led to the belief that the virus has not yet mutated to cause human-to-human infection.

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Tibetan Yoga to be Focus of Breast Cancer Study

Can a routine of yoga help ease the side effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients? Possibly.

The U.S. government's National Cancer Institute (NCI) has decided to spend $2.4 million to find out. The NCI has given the money to the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to expand research it began in 2004 to determine if practicing a particular discipline called Tibetan yoga will help breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

According to a news release from the Anderson Center, its 2004 research, published in the journal Cancer found that practicing Tibetan yoga improved the sleep of lymphoma patients, and a smaller study revealed that breast cancer patients had a better attitude toward their disease if they practiced Tibetan yoga.

What is Tibetan yoga? "Like other types of yoga, Tibetan yoga involves breathing, physical movements and meditation, but it puts greater emphasis on meditation and visualization," the press release quotes Alejandro Chaoul, an expert in the discipline who will help conduct the study, as saying.

Lorenzo Cohen, the director of the Integrative Medicine Program at M. D. Anderson is the study's principal investigator. According to the news release, the study will involve comparing a Tibetan yoga routine with simple stretching or usual care in women who will be undergoing chemotherapy to treat their breast cancer.

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Disgraced Korean Stem Cell Scientist Indicted for Fraud

Discredited South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk was indicted Friday on charges of fraud, embezzlement and bioethics violations in connection with faked research.

Prosecutors also indicted five members of Hwang's research team on lesser charges, the Associated Press reported.

If convicted, Hwang faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. It's expected the first hearing will take place in mid-June.

When Hwang's research was published it was regarded as a stem-cell breakthrough and raised hopes for new treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's. However, it was revealed late last year that he had fabricated key data.

Hwang is also alleged to have committed fraud by accepting $2 million in private donations based on the outcome of his faked research, as well as embezzling nearly $900,000 in private and government research funds. It's also alleged that Hwang bought human eggs for research -- a violation of South Korea's bioethics law, the AP reported.

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