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Health Highlights: Oct. 21, 2003

Senate Votes to Ban Controversial Abortion Procedure Fla. Gov. Signs Law to Re-Insert Feeding Tube Mass. Labor Leaders Seek Drug Imports for State Workers FDA Approves New AIDS Drug Robert De Niro Has Prostate Cancer First Surgery Done for Conjoined Twins

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

Senate Votes to Ban 'Partial Birth' Abortion

The Senate on Tuesday night voted to ban the practice that critics call 'partial birth' abortion, sending President Bush a measure that supporters and foes alike said could alter the future of U.S. abortion rights. A court challenge is certain, the Associated Press reports.

Years in the making, the bill imposes the most far-reaching limits on abortion since Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court's 1973 decision confirming a woman's right to end a pregnancy.

The 64-34 Senate vote, which crossed party lines, came after hours of heated debate and only three weeks after the House passed the same measure by 281-142.

"This is an enormous day. It's been a long seven-year fight about the issue of partial birth abortion," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. He was a leader of the drive to end abortions, generally carried out in the second or third trimester, in which a fetus is partially delivered before being killed. The bill will impose up to two years' jail time for doctors who perform the procedure.

Bush, traveling in Asia, said in a statement, "This is very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America."

Former President Clinton vetoed two prior attempts to ban the procedure because they did not include exceptions to protect the mother's health.

Partisans on both sides of the abortion debate are girding for an all-but-certain court battle over any legislation that threatens to erode the Roe vs. Wade decision, the AP reports.

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Fla. Gov. Signs Law to Re-Insert Feeding Tube

A little more than an hour after the Florida Senate voted to give Gov. Jeb Bush the right to re-insert the feeding tube in a 39-year-old comatose woman with severe brain damage, Bush ordered that the tube be re-installed, the Associated Press reports.

Tuesday afternoon's vote by the state Senate followed similar action by the House a day earlier. The lawmakers effectively went around last week's decision by a state judge, who decided that the husband of Terri Schiavo could have removed a feeding tube that has kept her alive for 13 years since a heart attack in 1990.

The tube was removed last Wednesday against the wishes of Schiavo's parents, who have mounted huge legal and public relations campaigns to keep their daughter alive. Doctors expected Schiavo to die within two weeks of the tube's removal.

Schiavo's parents disagree with the opinion of court-appointed doctors, who say the woman is in an irreversible vegetative state and has no hope of recovery.

The Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court both have refused to hear the case, which has dragged on for more than six years, the AP reports.

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Mass. Labor Leaders Seek Drug Imports for State Workers

Massachusetts labor leaders representing more than 30,000 state employees have asked the state's leading health agency to consider importing prescription drugs from Canada.

The Group Insurance Commission, a panel appointed by the governor to provide health benefits for 265,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents, is scheduled to begin considering Canadian imports next month. It's a move the unions contend could lower drug costs to taxpayers as well as to their members, the Boston Globe reports.

The request from union leaders could draw Gov. Mitt Romney into the contentious, spreading debate over U.S. prescription drug prices. So far, the newspaper reports, the Republican governor has responded coolly to the proposal.

In a prepared statement, the head of the National Association of Government Employees said Canadian drugs make sense for cash-strapped governments.

"This plan gives us the opportunity to help people get safe prescription drugs at fair prices," David J. Holway said, "and relieves the pressure on public budgets without making any painful budget cuts."

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FDA Approves New AIDS Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the new anti-AIDS drug Lexiva (fosamprenavir calcium), among a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors.

The drug offers more flexible dosing than similar medicines, according to its manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline. There are no food and water restrictions, and the two-pill dose can be taken once or twice daily with or without other drugs, versus as many as eight times daily with other anti-AIDS medicines.

The drug, formerly known as 908, was co-developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-based biotech firm. The medication's safety and effectiveness was demonstrated in clinical trials involving more than 1,200 people, Glaxo says.

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Robert De Niro Has Prostate Cancer

Two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro has prostate cancer, confirms a spokesman, though he says the 60-year-old actor is expected to fully recover, the New York Daily News reports.

Because the cancer was caught early and De Niro is in otherwise excellent health, the actor and his doctors are "extremely optimistic," says spokesman Stan Rosenfield, who refused to reveal details of De Niro's treatment plans.

More than 220,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year, and 29,000 die from the disease.

Screening is recommended for most men 50 and older, though those with a family history and other risk factors should be screened beginning at age 40, the newspaper reports.

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First Surgery Done for Conjoined Twins

Surgeons in New York City completed the first of at least three operations Monday to separate 18-month-old twin boys from the Philippines who are joined at the top of their heads.

Carl and Clarence Aguirre can "live viable, independent lives," Dr. James Goodrich, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Montefiore Children's Hospital in the Bronx, told the Associated Press.

The surgeries could take several months to complete, doctors said.

The twins share a major vein that drains blood from the brain to the heart. The doctors plan to give it to one twin, and reroute other veins to replace it in the other boy, the wire service reports.

The boys have gained five pounds in the last five weeks, eating a special diet of pureed food. Their brains appear to be almost entirely separate within their skulls, the New York Times reports.

Meanwhile, 2-year-old Egyptian twin boys who were separated in a 34-hour operation at Children's Medical Center Dallas on Oct. 11 and 12 continue to show slow but steady improvement.

In both cases, charitable organizations raised money to help pay for some of the twins' medical bills, the Times reports.

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