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Health Highlights: Dec. 3, 2004

U.S. Health and Human Services Chief Quits Doctor Saved Jews from Nazis With Phony Illness Disease Fears Ground Reindeer for Holidays Barry Bonds Admitted He Used Substances: Report British Journal Article Warns of Internet Suicide Pacts New Treatment for Overactive Bladder Wins Approval

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

U.S. Health and Human Services Chief Quits

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson handed in his resignation Friday and President Bush accepted it. At a Friday afternoon news conference, Thompson said he would stay until Feb. 4 or until a successor is confirmed.

Thompson's likely successor is Mark McClellan, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who is now chief of the federal Medicare program, according to the Associated Press. McClellan is the brother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Among the milestones during Thompson's tenure: Discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease; this year's shortage of flu vaccine; and the recent withdrawal of the painkiller Vioxx after critics had alleged for years that it caused an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.

Citing a list of accomplishments, Thompson said the road to success wasn't always smooth. "We touched the third rail of politics," he told reporters, referring to the landmark Medicare legislation that passed Congress last year.

The former Wisconsin governor is the eighth of 15 Cabinet members to resign since President Bush won re-election in November, the AP said.


Doctor Saved Jews from Nazis With Phony Illness

Nearly 60 years after the end of World War II, a retired Italian doctor has revealed that he saved Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis by diagnosing them with a nonexistent disease.

Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti, who still lives in the Jewish ghetto of Rome where his heroics took place, told the BBC that he had to think quickly when the Nazis showed up, so he told Jewish residents to go to the hospital. "We would write on their medical forms that the patient was suffering from K Syndrome," he said. "We called it K after the German commander [Albert] Kesserling. The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits."

Sacerdoti told the network that the Jews were instructed to cough as much as they could when the Germans arrived at the hospital, because "they are afraid of the coughing, they don't want to catch an awful disease and they won't enter."

Sacerdoti, who was 28 at the time, saved 45 Jews from concentration camps, including a young cousin, according to the BBC account.


Disease Fears Ground Reindeer for Holidays

Disease fears are keeping some reindeer sleigh at bay this Christmas.

CNN reports that some states in the Southeast, concerned over chronic wasting disease, which is to deer what mad cow disease is to cattle, won't allow reindeer to cross state lines even for Christmas exhibitions.

Kyle Wilson, who makes a seasonal living by taking his reindeer to holiday shows, told CNN that he's been stopped at state lines and warned about trying to get his animals across. "They said they would confiscate the deer on the spot and kill them," he said.

The disease started in Wyoming and Colorado and has since made its way to some Midwestern states, according to CNN. Chronic wasting disease is no humbug: It rots the brain, it's contagious, and it has no cure. No cases have been reported in Southeastern states so far, and officials want to keep it that way.

The reindeer can be on display, but with limits. "We have no ban on public viewing," Kate Pipkin, public information biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, told the network. "You just cannot transport them to a shopping mall."


Barry Bonds Admitted He Used Substances: Report

San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds told a federal grand jury last year that he used a clear substance and a cream supplied by his trainer, but denied knowing they were steroids, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday.

Bonds testified last December in the trial of a San Francisco Bay-area company known as BALCO, which has been indicted for allegedly supplying performance-enhancing drugs to high-profile professional athletes.

Bonds testified that trainer Greg Anderson gave him the substances during the 2003 baseball season, but he said he thought they were a nutritional supplement and a rubbing balm for arthritis, the Chronicle reported. In his grand jury testimony, Bonds denied prosecutors' allegations that he used steroids and human growth hormone, the newspaper said.

In a September 2003 raid on Anderson's home, investigators said they found evidence that Bonds used banned drugs, the Chronicle reported. Anderson was indicted in connection with the BALCO case last February on charges of distributing steroids.

Friday's Chronicle article capped a busy week in the BALCO case, in which the newspaper also reported that New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi admitted before the grand jury last year that he used growth hormone and steroids.

In a related development, the founder of BALCO told ABC News in an interview to be aired Friday night that performance-enhancing drug use is rampant among U.S. athletes. "My guess is more than 80 percent are taking some sort of a stimulant before each and every game," Victor Conte was quoted as saying by United Press International.

Conte compared evading anti-doping rules to "taking candy from a baby," UPI said.


British Journal Article Warns of Internet Suicide Pacts

The Internet may be giving rise to an alarming new trend known as "cybersuicide," a top British psychiatrist warned in a leading medical journal.

The practice involves strangers who meet on special Web sites to plan their deaths, wrote Dr. Sundararajan Rajagopal in the British Medical Journal. Such sites offer detailed descriptions of suicide methods, including specifying overdoses of particular medications that would cause death, he wrote.

Rajagopal, of London's St. Thomas Hospital, cited an incident in October in which nine people appeared to have died this way in Japan, according to an account by BBC News Online.

He said these types of Web sites could trigger suicidal behavior in vulnerable people, particularly teenagers and other young people who live alone.


New Treatment for Overactive Bladder Wins Approval

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the new drug Vesicare (solifenacin succinate) to treat symptoms of overactive bladder, the drug's makers said.

Overactive bladder (OAB) is a condition that causes the bladder muscle to contract while the organ is filling, rather than when it is full. People with the condition feel the urge to urinate more frequently, often without warning. OAB affects up to 20 million men and women in the United States, reported the drug's makers, GlaxoSmithKline and Japan's Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical Co.

Approval of Vesicare followed four 12-week trials involving more than 3,000 people with OAB symptoms, including the urge to urinate more frequently and the accidental leakage of urine, the companies said in a prepared statement. The most common side effects were dry mouth, constipation, and blurred vision.

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