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Health Highlights: Nov. 17, 2003

Democrats Cool to Medicare Deal Differences Between Women, Doctors on Menstrual Suppression Council Pushes for Tougher Seatbelt Laws Minor Skin Cancers May Signal Larger Cancer Risk Heart Valves Grown from Patient Cells Hepatitis A Outbreak in Pa. Triggers Scallion Warning

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

Democrats Cool to Medicare Deal

Congressional negotiators on Sunday revealed with great fanfare a compromise deal to radically change Medicare by finally giving senior citizens prescription drug coverage and introducing private insurers into the mix.

But that optimism may have been premature, the Associated Press reports Monday.

"I believe [the legislation] will not pass the United States Senate in its current form," predicted Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), speaking for a host of unenthusiastic Democrats.

The bill would offer a prescription drug benefit for 40 million elderly and disabled participants starting in 2006. There would be a $35 monthly premium and a $275 deductible.

In its current form, the legislation would also include a $12 billion fund to help private managed-care plans compete with the traditional Medicare program -- a provision that amounts to "a slush fund for HMOs," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She and many Democrats say the privatization portion of the bill would leave sicker and older beneficiaries in the traditional Medicare program, only to face higher premiums and drug prices that are still high, the AP reports.

Just after the compromise was announced, President Bush said he would push for the deal with all of his political might. Bush said the agreement included all of the provisions he had laid out in his original charge to Congress, including "prescription drugs for our seniors, choice for seniors, accountability for the Medicare plan."

Meanwhile, the head of AARP told the Associated Press Monday that his organization would "pull out all the stops" to pass the legislation, including a three-day television advertising campaign this week.

William D. Novelli acknowledged that the bill isn't perfect, "but the country can't afford to wait for perfect. On balance, it's the right thing for seniors in America and their families."

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Differences Between Women, Docs on Menstrual Suppression

A new national survey finds that many American women and health-care providers approve of the idea of using oral contraceptives to limit or eliminate monthly periods.

But the survey, sponsored by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, also found that most women -- 73 percent -- have never heard of using birth control pills to skip a period, even though eight of 10 clinicians -- 90 percent of whom were female -- have heard of it. And seven of 10 clinicians have prescribed contraceptives to suppress menstruation.

Women and health-care providers also disagree on the necessity of having a monthly period. Fifty percent of women and just seven percent of health-care providers think a menstrual period is necessary every month, according to the survey.

Both group agree on the need for more research on menstrual suppression -- almost 80 percent of women and more than 85 percent of the health-care providers think more study should be done on the topic.

The survey was funded through an unrestricted grant from Barr Laboratories. The company recently gained U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its product Seasonale, an extended-cycle oral contraceptive that limits periods to four times a year.

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Council Pushes for Tougher Seatbelt Laws

More than 12,000 people have died because 30 states failed to follow a 1995 National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to enact primary enforcement seatbelt use laws, a new study contends.

Primary seatbelt laws allow police officers to ticket motorists based solely on an observed seatbelt violation. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have primary seatbelt laws, says the National Safety Council, which released the study Monday.

Seatbelts have been proven to reduce the risk of serious injury or death in a crash by 45 percent, the study says.

"We have a vaccine for the leading cause of death for Americans from ages two through 33 -- safety belts. Primary safety belt laws are our most effective public policy tool," said Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "If all states moved right now to enact them, 1,400 more lives could be saved next year alone in preventable traffic injury."

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Minor Skin Cancers May Signal Larger Cancer Risk

Certain forms of non-deadly skin cancer may signal an increased risk of more serious malignancies that could kill, researchers report in Monday's edition of the journal Cancer.

Nonmelanoma cancers such as basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas are common in the United States. Patients with these cancers usually have a favorable prognosis, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Carol Rosenberg of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Rosenberg and colleagues with the government-sponsored Women's Health Initiative found that people who developed basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers were more than twice as likely to develop other cancers, regardless of ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, smoking status or other lifestyle factors. These other cancers include breast and brain tumors, the researchers say.

Among black women, the odds of getting a more serious form of cancer once diagnosed with minor skin cancer were even greater -- 7.5 times as likely as black women who hadn't contracted skin cancer.

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Heart Valves Grown from Patient Cells

German surgeons say they've learned to make human heart valves from a patient's own cells, eliminating the risk of tissue rejection, BBC News Online reports.

The doctors at Berlin's Charite Hospital say they've already used the valves in 23 patients. Up to now, replacement valves had been made from metal or plastic, or taken from animal or human donors.

The valves were created by taking cells that make up the lining of blood vessels and covering a donor valve taken from either a pig or a deceased patient. The valve had been stripped of its own cells so the patient's cells would grow around it, the BBC report says.

The patients who've had the valves implanted have been followed for three years, and have recovered more quickly. Still, the surgeons say, more testing is needed before their technique is approved for widespread use.

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Hepatitis A Outbreak in Pa. Triggers Scallion Warning

The hepatitis A outbreak in the Pittsburgh area that has killed three people and sickened more than 500 people has prompted a U.S. government warning on scallions.

The Food and Drug Administration issued this advisory over the weekend: "Hepatitis A outbreaks associated with raw or lightly cooked green onions served in restaurants occurred in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia in September. Another outbreak of hepatitis A among patrons of a single restaurant has occurred in Pennsylvania during late October and early November, although the source of the outbreak has not yet been determined."

The Pennsylvania outbreak, which started early this month, has been traced to a Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant in the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.

As of Saturday, 510 cases of hepatitis A had been confirmed in the outbreak, state officials said.

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