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Health Highlights: Jan. 20, 2011

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

Colorado Considers Default Organ Donation

A proposal to make people organ donors by default is being considered by Colorado lawmakers and, if passed, would be the first "presumed consent" system in the country.

Under the bill, driver's license and ID card renewal applications would state that applicants are presumed to be organ donors unless they initial a statement that says they wish to opt out, the Associated Press reported.

Similar proposals in at least three states -- Delaware, Illinois and New York -- were defeated because lawmakers were concerned that organ donation programs would appear coercive if residents have to say no.

But advocates believe the Colorado bill may be better received because nearly two-thirds of state residents with driver's licenses or state-issued ID are listed as organ donors. That rate is higher than any other state, the AP reported.

"Presumed consent" is common in Europe and is believed to have significantly increased organ donation rates.


Another Milestone in Giffords' Recovery

There was another major advance Wednesday in Gabrielle Giffords' remarkable recovery from the bullet wound to her brain, as she stood up and looked out a window.

The Arizona congresswoman stood on her feet with assistance from medical staff, said Janet Stark, a spokeswoman at University Medical Center in Tucson, the Associated Press reported.

That milestone came as preparations are made to move Giffords on Friday to TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, where husband Mark Kelly lives and works as an astronaut. Once there, Giffords will undergo extensive mental and physical rehabilitation, including relearning how to think and plan.

It's not known if she can speak, how well she can see, or how much strength she has on the right side of her body. She is able to move both arms and legs, the AP reported.

"I am extremely hopeful at the signs of recovery that my wife has made since the shooting," Mark Kelly said in a statement released by Gifford's congressional office.

When Giffords arrives in Houston, doctors will conduct a thorough assessment of her abilities, Dr. Reid Thompson, neurosurgery chief at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told the AP.

"The rehab is going to be pretty intense for her, both cognitively and physically," he said.

Giffords and 18 other people were shot Jan. 8 as the congresswomen met with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson. Six people died.


Wal-Mart to Offer Healthier Foods

Joining a growing trend, Wal-Mart will announce Thursday that it plans to reduce levels of salt, trans fats and sugar in its Great Value food products.

Under the five-year plan, the nation's largest retailer will also lower prices on fruits and vegetables and press its major food suppliers to produce healthier products, The New York Times reported.

The introduction of the changes over five years is meant to give Wal-Mart time to deal with any potential technical problems and to give consumers time to adjust to the foods' new taste, said Leslie Dach, the company's executive vice president for corporate affairs.

Many other companies have already announced efforts to make foods healthier, The Times reported.


Drug Extends Lives of Patients With Advanced Melanoma

An experimental drug helped extend the lives of patients with advanced melanoma, according to study results released Wednesday by drug maker Roche.

Previous trials showed that the drug, which targets a mutation in the B-RAF gene, shrank tumors for an average of six months. The new findings are the first to show that the drug also prolongs survival, The New York Times reported.

The mutation in the B-RAF gene is present in about half of the 68,000 Americans who develop melanoma every year. The mutation signals cells to grow uncontrollably. The new drug blocks a malfunctioning protein the gene produces in cancer cells but does not affect normally functioning genes in noncancerous cells.

The new findings pave the way for Roche to seek approval to market the drug, The Times reported.


Follow-Up to House Repeal of Health Care Law Uncertain

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal President Barack Obama's health care reform law, but what happens now is uncertain.

Many experts believe the vote is as far as the Republicans can go in their attempt to abolish the law. That's because the Democrats who control the Senate say they will block any repeal efforts and President Obama has vowed to use his veto power should a bill to repeal come to his desk for his signature.

It would likely require 60 Senate votes to overturn the law and the Republicans have only 47 Senate votes.

However, House Republicans have said they can find ways to withhold money required to carry out the law, which would provide health coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people, the Associated Press reported.

Democrats note that the law is already giving millions of Americans benefits, such as lower prescription prices for Medicare recipients with high drug costs and extended coverage for young adults on their parents' insurance plan.

The outcome of the Republicans' repeal effort depends on the type of replacement legislation they offer, according to Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y), the AP reported. If the public supports it, Democrats in the Senate may give it serious consideration, he suggested.

That's easier said than done, according to Democrats.

On Thursday, the House is expected to vote to instruct committees to draft health care legislation that includes Republican priorities such as stricter language barring taxpayer funding for abortions and limits on medical malpractice awards, the AP reported.

A previous Republican bill offered as an alternative to the new law would have provided insurance coverage to only a fraction of the Americans reached by the Democrat's legislation.

But Republicans contend that a modest, step-by-step approach to health reform may be more sustainable in the long run than the current large-scale effort, the AP reported.


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Posted: January 2011