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Health Highlights: Dec. 4, 2004

BALCO Head Says He Supplied Steroids to Top Athletes U.S. Health and Human Services Chief Quits Doctor Saved Jews from Nazis With Phony Illness Disease Fears Ground Reindeer for Holidays British Journal Article Warns of Internet Suicide Pacts

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

BALCO Head Says He Supplied Steroids to Top Athletes

The central figure in the burgeoning steroids-in-sports scandal says he provided performance-enhancing drugs to numerous world-class athletes, including track and field star Marion Jones, world record sprinter Tim Montgomery and former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski.

Victor Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) in California, said he also provided the once-undetectable drugs to the personal trainer for baseball superstar Barry Bonds. But, Conte said he didn't know if the trainer, Greg Anderson, ever gave the drugs to the home run champion.

Bonds last year told a federal grand jury investigating BALCO that he had used a clear substance and a cream supplied by Anderson, but denied knowing they were steroids, according to published reports.

Conte, who has been indicted by a federal grand jury for steroid distribution, made his claims in an interview broadcast Friday night on ABC's "20/20" news magazine.

He said the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs was rampant among professional and Olympic athletes, and skirting drug-testing measures was "like taking candy from a baby."

"Let me tell you the biggest joke of all: I would guesstimate that more than 50 percent of the athletes are taking some form of anabolic steroids," Conte said.

Much of the interview focused on Conte's description of his relationship with Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Conte said he supplied Jones with a variety of banned drugs from August 2000 through September 2001. The drugs included a substance called "the clear," EPO, human growth hormone, and insulin. According to "20/20," "the clear" is thought to be the anabolic steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG. EPO, or erythropoietin, is a red blood cell-boosting hormone experts believe can increase endurance by 10 percent to 15 percent.

Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told the Associated Press he would work to revoke Jones' medals if Conte's comments prove true.

But Jones denied the allegations.

"Victor Conte's allegations about me are not true, and the truth will come out in the appropriate forum," Jones said in a statement issued through her attorney. "I have instructed my lawyers to vigorously explore a defamation lawsuit against Victor Conte."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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