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Health Highlights: July 31, 2003

Millions of U.S. Kids Still Lack Health Insurance: Survey Sunlight Substitutes for Laser in Surgery Breakthrough FDA Approves AIDS Gel Trials Americans Not Taking West Nile Precautions: Survey Woman Delivers Her Own Baby Aboard Boston Subway

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

Millions of U.S. Kids Still Lack Health Insurance: Survey

Federal health insurance programs have helped reduce the number of American children who are uninsured, but at least 4 million eligible kids are still not covered, a new survey says.

Overall, 7.8 million children were without health insurance at some point last year, a drop of 1.8 million in just three years, the Associated Press reports. Researchers credit increased enrollment in Medicaid, which provides health care for the poorest families and children, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, created in 1997 for children from working poor families.

At the same time, private coverage declined. Between 1999 and 2002, a total of 2 million fewer children received health insurance from private insurers as more companies dropped benefits for workers and their families.

The data come from a large survey of 40,000 families conducted periodically by the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism Project. The survey was released Thursday by the Covering Kids and Families project, which is beginning its annual effort to sign more children up for public programs. Both the survey and the Covering Kids program are funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Sunlight Substitutes for Laser in Surgery Breakthrough

Scientists in Israel have found a novel new use for the sun's rays: as an alternative to expensive laser surgery.

Using a tiny but powerful beam of ordinary sunshine, they zapped away unwanted tissue in liver surgery experiments on mice, according to research published Thursday in Nature.

"It would be especially valuable in my university's medical center, which has not been able to afford a single laser fiber-optic surgical system," the study's lead author, Jeffery M. Gordon of Ben-Gurion University in Tel Aviv, told the Associated Press.

Laser surgery equipment costs more than $100,000, while the sunlight scalpel system is assembled with off-the-shelf parts. Gordon and his partner, Daniel Feuermann, used a rooftop mirror less than 8 inches wide to focus bright sunlight and funnel it down a long optical fiber about 60 feet into the lab. Other mirrors manipulate and concentrate the sunlight along its journey.

The beam can be adjusted, but photons cannot be stored in a battery like electricity. So the sunbeam scalpel is only useful when the sun is shining.

Gordon said the inexpensive system, which is not appropriate for delicate procedures like eye or skin surgery, could be used in desert communities, as well as field clinics for the military and refugee camps.

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FDA Approves AIDS Gel Trials

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved human trials of an anti-AIDS gel that has proven 100 percent effective in killing the virus in monkeys, CNN reports.

VivaGel, produced by the Australian drug firm Starpharma, could be targeted at women in poorer nations who cannot afford more expensive or more elaborate alternatives, the CNN report says.

Up to 2.5 million lives could be saved over three years if such a product were available, according to a report released earlier this year by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In trials using macaque monkeys, a single application of the gel was 100 percent effective in preventing the primate version of HIV, as well as genital herpes and chlamydia.

Human trials are set to begin in Australia by year's end. The CNN report did not mention a timetable for the U.S. trials.

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Americans Not Taking West Nile Precautions: Survey

Nearly four in 10 Americans who live in areas rife with mosquitoes aren't taking precautions against West Nile virus, a new survey from the Harvard School of Public Health finds.

Thirty-eight percent of 1,015 Americans polled nationwide said they haven't taken any precautions suggested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those suggestions include using mosquito repellent containing DEET, removing areas of standing water, avoiding the outdoors during dawn and dusk, wearing long-sleeve shirts and other protective clothing, and replacing torn window screens.

Oddly enough, 48 percent of those polled in high mosquito areas say they're concerned that they or a family member may be stricken with West Nile in the next 12 months, the survey finds.

As of July 30, 44 human cases of the illness had been reported in the United States with one confirmed death, the Harvard researchers say in a statement.

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Next Stop: The Maternity Ward

A 42-year-old former nurse gave birth to a baby boy aboard a Boston subway train Wednesday, refusing help from startled passengers, the Boston Globe reports.

"Thanks for your concern, we're OK," a passenger quoted Joyce Judge as saying -- as she reportedly delivered the infant, tied the umbilical cord in a knot and wrapped the baby in a silk scarf.

"She cradled the baby in one arm and grabbed the handrail with the other and continued to ride the [train] and stare out the window," according to passenger Chris Chin, who told the newspaper he was standing four feet from Judge as the drama unfolded.

Mother and child are said to be doing fine at Boston Medical Center, as officials from the state Department of Social Services investigate the incident, the Globe reports.

Judge told the newspaper she was on her way to a suburban Boston hospital when her water broke. Witnesses said the infant fell from her skirt about 90 seconds later and slid across the floor of the train, stopping against a row of seats. Some say Judge apologized for the incident and ignored passengers' pleas to sit or lie down.

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