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Health Highlights: July 26, 2005

Social Security Speeds Disability Benefits Decisions Schwarzenegger Wants to Extend Soft Drink Ban in Schools Candy Firm Touts Cocoa's Medicinal Properties Increased Brain Cancer Risk for Gulf War Vets Exposed to Sarin Flu Viruses Can Mutate Quickly Twin Boys Need Heart Transplants

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

Social Security Speeds Disability Benefits Decisions

People seeking Social Security disability benefits can expect faster decisions based on rules changes announced Tuesday, the government says.

Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart said people who are clearly disabled could be approved for benefits in as little as three weeks under rules expected to be implemented next spring, the Associated Press reported.

The changes, announced on the 15th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, will mean a speedier approval process for virtually every qualified person who applies, Barnhart told the wire service. To qualify, a person must be unable to work for a year or more, have paid Social Security taxes for a minimum amount of time, and meet other specific eligibility requirements. More than 11 million people now receive such aid, the AP said.

The Social Security Administration expects to publish the proposed regulations for public comment this week and issue final regulations by year's end, the wire service said.

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Schwarzenegger Wants to Extend Soft Drink Ban in Schools

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to extend a statewide ban on soft drinks in the lower grades to high schools, the Associated Press reported.

Two years ago, the state became the first in the nation to ban soft drinks in middle and elementary schools. Some state school districts, including those in Los Angeles, already ban sodas in high schools.

The governor also wants to allow high schools to sell soda 30 minutes before and after the school day, the wire service said. And other types of food sold in vending machines would have to contain no more than 35 percent of their calories from fat, no more than 10 percent from saturated fat, and no more than 35 percent of the weight could be sugar.

A spokesman for the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association condemned the proposed ban, saying high school students were "almost adults" and could always buy soda nearby.

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Candy Firm Touts Cocoa's Medicinal Properties

Candymaker Mars Inc. said it is holding "serious discussions" with major pharmaceutical firms about developing a number of cocoa-based prescription drugs that could help treat ailments including diabetes and some forms of dementia, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Cocoa is said to contain flavonols, antioxidant compounds that proponents believe may fight ailments from heart disease to cancer. The company said the compounds appear to have an "aspirin-like affect" that might help stave off blood clotting, helping to prevent strokes and other cardiovascular problems.

A Mars spokeswoman wouldn't mention the drug companies with whom it has been negotiating.

Critics say the company's efforts would amount to nothing more than a new way to sell chocolate. "Mars is only doing this because it wants people to eat more and more M&Ms," said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition. She has no relation to the European chocolate maker of the same name, the Post notes.

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Increased Brain Cancer Risk for Gulf War Vets Exposed to Sarin

U.S. Gulf War veterans exposed to the nerve agent sarin, which was released by the destruction of Iraqi weapons in 1991, have an increased risk of dying from brain cancer, according to an Institute of Medicine study.

The study, commissioned by the U.S. military, found that soldiers exposed to sarin had a brain cancer death rate of 25 per 100,000 during the period from 1991 to 2000. Soldiers who weren't exposed to sarin had a brain cancer death rate of 12 per 100,000, USA Today reported.

"It's a doubling of risk, but it's still a pretty small risk," said study director William Page, a senior program officer at the Institute of Medicine.

The study said that about 100,000 U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf may have been exposed to sarin after American forces blew up two large ammunition dumps in Iraq in 1991. It was later discovered that some of the weapons contained sarin, which can cause convulsions and death, USA Today reported.

Soldiers in the immediate area of the two ammunition dumps weren't the only ones at risk. Winds may have carried traces of sarin as far away as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the newspaper said.

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Flu Viruses Can Mutate Quickly

Flu viruses are able to mutate much more rapidly than previously believed, say U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) scientists.

They found that different strains of influenza A virus were able to exchange several genes at once to rapidly create new resistant strains. It was previously thought that flu viruses swapped genes gradually from flu season to season, BBC News reported.

This finding suggests that flu strains may vary widely each year, making it potentially more difficult to combat them. The finding also increases worries about what might happen if the bird flu virus mutates into a form that could spread rapidly between humans.

The NIH scientists said closer scrutiny of circulating flu viruses is needed to identify mutations that can occur suddenly and without warning, BBC News reported.

The study appears in the journal PLOS Biology.

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Twin Boys Need Heart Transplants

Twin baby boys from Arizona who were both born with a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy will need heart transplants within three to six months to survive, doctors say.

The two-week-old boys, whose parents live in Phoenix, are currently in the Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles. Parents Nicole and Michael Draper are pleading for organ donations that could save the lives of their sons, Nicholas and Nathaniel, the Associated Press reported.

If the twins do receive heart transplants, their chances of survival are good, doctors say. The boys were born July 11 with heart muscles that are too weak to pump the blood needed to sustain their bodies.

"We want our boys to have a chance. We want them to come home," Michael Draper told the AP.

Doctors said it's extremely rare for even one baby to be born with dilated cardiomyopathy.

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