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Today's Health Highlights: Jan. 1, 2002

Heart Disease is Public Health Enemy No. 1 New Study Pushes for Less Labor During Childbirth Federal Report Questions Impartiality of Some Biomedical Research A 'Morning-After' Pill for HIV Health Concerns Dominate Congress' New Year's Resolutions Beware the Drunken Driver

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

Heart Disease is Nation's Biggest Health Enemy

Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of Americans, and a new study has the statistics to prove it.

Nearly 62 million Americans suffer from some form of heart disease, and nearly 1 million people die from it annually, according to the American Heart Association's annual report, released yesterday.

Yet one-third of those deaths could be prevented if people improved their diets and got more exercise, the AHA said.

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New Study Pushes for Less Labor During Childbirth

Conventional wisdom has held that a woman should push her way through labor, to facilitate the birth of her baby. But a new study says taking an occasional break from the pushing poses no threat to the mother or her child, according to ABC News.

The study was based on 252 women who were given an epidural to manage the pain of childbirth. While some women were told to take periodic rests during labor, the others were instructed to pursue the traditional method of pushing throughout their labor, ABC News said.

There is one downside to the less-laborious approach, according to the study, published in this month's American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology. The average length of labor is increased from roughly 30 to 90 minutes, up to nearly five hours, ABC reported.

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Federal Report Questions Impartiality of Some Biomedical Research

A congressional study released yesterday 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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A 'Morning-After' Pill for HIV

Just had unsafe sex? Call your doctor in the morning, prepare to take a month's worth of potentially unpleasant pills, and you may -- just may -- dodge AIDS, according to HealthDay.

For several years, that has been the quiet advice of some doctors who deal with people at risk of getting AIDS because of unsafe sexual encounters.

It's the same drug regimen -- endorsed by the federal government -- that is designed to prevent the deadly disease in medical workers who may have been infected with HIV on the job.

But the "morning after" therapy for unsafe sex remains a little-known option for a variety of reasons.

For starters, critics question the drug regimen's effectiveness; studies have shown it's not foolproof. Opponents also wonder if the therapy is a wise use of money and resources. Most worrisome, they add, is the prospect that more people will engage in unsafe sex if they know there's a pill they can take afterwards that might protect them.

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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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Beware the Drunken Driver

If you're thinking of hitting the road after downing a few too many drinks, 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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