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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 31, 2001

U.S. Report Questions Impartiality of Some Biomedical Research Health Concerns Top New Year's Resolutions for Congress If Champagne Makes You Bubbly, Blame the Fizz . . . . . . But Open the Bottle Carefully . . . And Beware of Drunken Driving More Anthrax Found at New York Postal Facility

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

Federal Report Questions Impartiality of Some Biomedical Research

A congressional study released today urges universities and federal health officials to do more so that financial conflicts won't skew biomedical research and harm human subjects, according to the Associated Press.

The review by the General Accounting Office said researchers currently don't have to disclose their financial interests to independent review boards. Yet those boards must evaluate projects for risks to human subjects, the AP said.

The GAO said the five universities it studied had difficulty providing basic data about researchers' financial conflicts of interest in clinical studies involving humans. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is a doctor, requested the investigation because of worries that researchers or institutions were becoming too obsessed with financial gains, the AP said.

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Health Concerns Dominate Congress' New Year's Resolutions

The New Year will see a renewed focus in Congress on health concerns, some of them controversial.

Adding a prescription drug benefit for seniors again tops Congress' wish list, the Associated Press reported. But with billions of dollars already earmarked for the war against terrorism and with dwindling surpluses, lawmakers say they'll have to pinch pennies elsewhere to pass the benefit or any other health initiative when they return in late January.

"We want to do a prescription drug bill," said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "A lot of those plans were kind of sidetracked since the Sept. 11 business, but we will have a full plate as soon as we get back."

House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri agreed, saying, "Even if we're going to have budget problems we want to figure out how to get that going."

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., lawmakers had a number of popular health issues they wanted to pass. The biggest two were adding prescription drug coverage as a Medicare benefit and making health insurers more accountable in legislation popularly known as the patients' bill of rights.

The House and Senate have passed versions of the patients' rights legislation. But anti-terrorism legislation became a much higher priority in the fall and no effort was made to resolve the biggest difference between the two bills -- how much standing patients should have for suing insurers.

Congress in May agreed to set aside $300 billion over the next 10 years to add prescription drug coverage to the annual $250 billion Medicare program. But surplus revenues have dried up with the recession and the cost of responding to the terrorist attacks.

Other health issues likely to come up in 2002 will be just as thorny, the AP reported. Among them:

    Cloning. The House passed a ban on all human cloning. Democrats and many Republicans in the Senate favor a ban that exempts cloning for research purposes.

    Stem cells. President Bush in August authorized stem cell research, but only on 64 existing stem cell lines. Some lawmakers want to expand that to include surplus embryos donated by fertility clinics -- much to the chagrin of abortion critics.

    Mental health. Senators made an unsuccessful attempt to force insurers to cover mental illness at the same level as other medical problems. House Republicans complained the measure would lead to higher insurance costs and more uninsured people. Bush urged lawmakers to hold off until the new year.

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If Champagne Makes You Bubbly, Blame the Fizz . . .

If you pop a cork and partake of champagne on New Year's Eve, take extra care. British researchers say the fizz in bubbly makes its alcohol content more likely to hit your brain faster and keep you drunk longer, HealthDay reports.

Researchers at a university organized a series of "drinking parties" for volunteers and tested their reactions to two glasses of fizzy champagne or two glasses of "wine" -- champagne with the bubbles removed. The booze had more of an effect on those who drank the normal champagne.

It's not clear why bubbles boost the impact of alcohol in the body. But if you don't like the idea of getting drunker than you expect, eat some food with your beverage and drink it slowly.

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. . . But Open That Bottle With Care

Breaking out the champagne lands many a New Year's Eve reveler in the emergency room: The bottle corks can dart out at lightning speed, causing potentially serious eye injuries.

According to a HealthDay report, precise figures aren't available on how many of these injuries occur each year, but the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says the problem is common enough to warrant greater awareness of the risk.

One reason eyes are particularly vulnerable to corks is because the larger bones of the face, such as the cheek bones, can protect against injury from larger objects, like a basketball. But corks can shoot right into the eye sockets.

And the warmer the bottle of champagne, the greater the force propelling the cork.

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. . . And Beware of Drunken Driving

If you're thinking about hitting the road after guzzling champagne tonight, consider this: Drunken drivers are 13 times more likely to kill someone than an average sober driver, a new study says, according to HealthDay.

"A drunken driver who takes a five-mile trip exposes other people to as much risk as a sober driver who drives for 65 miles," says Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study into the risks of mixing alcohol and driving.

While public awareness of drunken driving has grown over the last two decades, 16,653 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 2000. That's 40 percent of all traffic deaths, according to federal figures.

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More Anthrax Found at New York Postal Facility

More traces of anthrax have been found on a mail sorting machine at the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center in New York City, the Associated Press reported.

The facility, which handles some 12.5 million pieces of mail per day, had tested positive for the bacteria in October. Subsequent tests came back negative. Another test, this one taken on Dec. 23, however, came back positive. A third-floor sorting machine was the only one to test positive in the 10-story building.

The Morgan Center will not be closed but will be decontaminated and retested.

Although no postal workers in New York City have contracted anthrax, mail that went through the Morgan facility appears to have been responsible for four nonlethal cases of skin anthrax in the city.

Meanwhile, workers today finished fumigating the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., to kill trace amounts of anthrax spores in the heating and ventilation system, the AP reported. Technicians under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday began pumping chlorine dioxide gas into the heating and ventilation system of the southeast quadrant of the building, an area that tested positive for anthrax spores after an earlier fumigation effort.

The building has been closed since Oct. 17, two days after an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle opened an anthrax-tainted letter.

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