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Health Highlights: Nov. 1, 2002

U.S. Probes Unnecessary Heart Surgeries Oral Sex Carries HPV Risk FDA Approves Nicotine Lozenge Should Kids Get a Smallpox Shot? Three Mile Island Neighbors Have Normal Cancer Rates: Study Mass. Schools Consider Metal Bat Ban

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

U.S. Probes Unnecessary Heart Surgeries

U.S. government agents are investigating whether two doctors at one of Tenet Healthcare's California hospitals have ordered unnecessary surgeries for patients and possibly defrauded Medicare, reports The New York Times.

According to an affidavit by the FBI, the government has reason to suspect that "many known and unknown patients have been victims of a scheme to cause patients to undergo unnecessary invasive coronary procedures." The alleged surgeries include artery bypass and heart valve replacement procedures.

A spokesman for Tenet, one of the largest for-profit hospital chains in the U.S., told The Times that the company had no basis to believe the accusations were true and that Tenet was unsure whether the investigation extended to the hospital or the company or whether it was limited to the two doctors.

The physicians involved are cardiologists in private practice and aren't employed by the hospital or Tenet.

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Oral Sex Carries HPV Risk

Oral sex is not safe sex, especially for women, a Montreal doctor warned this week at the Congress for Canadian French-language doctors.

Dr. Marc Steben, an infectious disease expert, said women face a heightened risk of contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV) by performing oral sex, reports the Canadian Press. There are a variety of HPV strains of varying potency. One causes genital warts, for instance, while HPV 16 can bring about cervical cancer.

About 30 percent of women under age 30 have been infected with the virus and one in three North American men and women will have contracted HPV at one point in their lives.

Because most people with the virus are symptom-free, they're probably unaware they're infected, according to the CP report. Steben urged more women to get Pap smears, a gynecological test that can detect HPV. He also advised women to insist their male partners wear a condom during oral sex.

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FDA Approves Nicotine Lozenge

Smokers looking to quit can look forward to sucking on a nicotine lozenge to help dull their cravings, reports the Associated Press.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved GlaxoSmithKline's Commit lozenge. The product, sold in a 72-lozenge pack for $39.95, will be on pharmacy shelves next month where people can buy them without a prescription.

The lozenges vary in how much nicotine they contain. The more someone smokes, the greater the recommended strength. The idea is that smokers pop a lozenge into their mouths when overcome by a craving, instead of lighting up. This way they gradually wean themselves off cigarettes and the nicotine aid by decreasing the number and the strength of the lozenges they consume.

This is the first nicotine lozenge the FDA has approved. The agency has forced other similar products, such as nicotine lollipops, off the market claiming they were drugs and needed FDA approval to sell.

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Should Kids Get a Smallpox Shot?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is so torn over whether to administer the risky smallpox vaccine to school children that it's seeking public comment on the issue, the Associated Press reports.

In advance of a possible bioterror attack, researchers want to test the smallpox vaccine on some 40 2-to-5-year-olds at hospitals in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. They would be the first children to be vaccinated against the disease since routine smallpox immunizations ended in 1972.

The FDA says before the clinical trials on the youngsters begin, it is taking the unusual step of seeking the public's opinion for the next month.

The vaccine is made from a live smallpox virus called a vaccina, which can cause rare but life-threatening reactions on its own. The FDA already says it will keep kids who get the vaccine out of school for a month.

Experts say if a vaccinated person touches the spot where the vaccine is given, he could actually spread the virus. They estimate that 15 of every 1 million vaccine recipients will develop a deadly reaction, and that one or two will die.

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Three Mile Island Neighbors Have Normal Cancer Rates

People living within five miles of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., are at no greater risk of getting cancer than the general population, a new 20-year study finds.

University of Pittsburgh researchers tracked 32,100 neighbors of the plant, at which low doses of radiation were accidentally released in 1979.

Researchers say they only saw one spike in cancer rates; from 1985 to 1989, 24 women died of lymphoma or a type of cancer that affects blood-forming organs (hematopoietic tissue), reports The New York Times. Normally, 14 victims would have died in that time span.

Results of the study are published on the Web site of the National Institutes of Health journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.

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Mass. Schools Consider Metal Bat Ban

Metal bats are dangerous and should be banned from student ballfields in the state, according to a recommendation from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

A story in the Boston Globe says the MIAA's baseball committee has voted 11-4 to ban the aluminum bats in favor of wooden ones like the pros use. The MIAA board of directors will consider whether to enact the proposal when it meets Dec. 3.

"It's a safety issue," MIAA deputy director Bill Gaine tells the newspaper. Since the 1970s, aluminum bats have become standard equipment among student teams because of the bats' durability, cheaper cost, and their "trampoline effect" that results in more homers and higher batting averages.

But critics of the bats say that same effect leads to more injuries. They cite the case of a local college pitcher who was seriously injured after being struck in the temple by a hard-hit line drive from an aluminum bat last year.

Supporters of the metal bats are balking at the MIAA's decision. Jerry Miles, executive director of the High School Baseball Coaches Association calls it "unfortunate." Says he, "Any time you play a game with a ball and a bat, there's a risk of injury."

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