Sharon faces heart surgery to close hole that caused stroke

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The Independent Online

The announcement that Mr Sharon, 77, is to have the treatment in the next two to three weeks is likely to ensure his health continues to be a matter of public debate in what are the preliminary stages of the Israeli election campaign.

It came at a news conference by senior doctors arranged by the Prime Minister's Office which disclosed medical records saying that, though Mr Sharon's powers of speech were affected for several hours by the stroke on 18 December, it had no impact "on his memory and other faculties".

Dr Tamir Ben-Hur, the head of neurology at Hadassah hospital, declared: "There is no injury to the brain. The Prime Minister is in exactly the same state now as he was the day before he was hospitalised."

Some gaps in public knowledge were filled by yesterday's disclosures - including an official statement that Mr Sharon weighed 115kg (254lb). Doctors said that Mr Sharon, who has frequently joked in the past about his excessive weight, had lost three kilos since being rushed to hospital. While doctors - reinforced by a concerned US President George Bush - have ordered Mr Sharon to diet, there has been considerable media debate over whether he will heed their advice.

The Prime Minister provoked laughter at Sunday's cabinet meeting by warning Israelis not to over-indulge in the foods traditional during the eight-day Hanukkah holiday which has just begun. He said: "I hope you'll eat sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) - eating is permissible, but I recommend that you not overdo it."

But one anonymous minister later told Ha'aretz: "For several years now I have sat at the cabinet table and seen Sharon's great lust for sandwiches, bourekas (small stuffed pastries) and cakes and it's hard for me to believe he'll be capable of abstaining from all the dishes he loves."

Dr Haim Lotem, the head of cardiology at Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital, said the hole in Mr Sharon's heart, measuring 1-2mm, is a minor birth defect found in 15 to 25 per cent of the general population, which does not need to be treated "unless it causes problems". The procedure involves inserting a tiny tube through a blood vessel into the heart to seal the hole.

Mr Lotem said that the Prime Minister is receiving blood-thinning medication twice a day until he undergoes the procedure, which will take around 30 minutes and require sedation but no general anaesthetic. Doctors appear to have concluded the blood clot that caused the stroke got lodged in the hole, restricting the flow of blood to his brain.

Although the disclosures were billed in advance as a precedent-setting breakthrough in giving detailed medical data about a leading politician, not all doctors regarded them as fully comprehensive. Amitai Elkayam, a doctor at Sheba Medical Centre said "the information that was given is extremely thin".

Meanwhile, Mr Sharon's government has invited tenders for 228 new houses in the West Bank settlements of Beitar Illit and Efrat in a move condemned as "political opportunism" by Peace Now. Ironically, the move came at the same time as the leak of part of the programme of Mr Sharon's new party, Kadima, backing a return to the internationally agreed road-map, which explicitly rules out such settlement expansion.

And a Palestinian court was considering moves to merge the two national lists of candidates for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections created by a split in the dominant Fatah organisation. The merger has been made possible by an agreement to force "old guard" candidates to run in district lists where they are less likely to succeed. The move - a major boost for the more popular "young guard" led by the gaoled Marwan Barghouti - has already resulted in Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister and a leading "old guard" figure, withdrawing his PLC candidacy. A poll by An-Najar University in Nablus suggests that Hamas would be the biggest single party, at 31 per cent, if the Fatah list remains split.