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Health Highlights: Dec. 3, 2002

Anti-Radiation Drug Offered to U.S. Postal Workers Leaky Scuba Equipment Recalled U.K. to Offer Prescription Heroin to Addicts Patch May Help Severe Depression Gov't. Panel Waffles on Prostate Exams FDA OKs Parasite Drug for Children

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

Anti-Radiation Drug Offered to U.S. Postal Workers

The United States Postal Service (USPS) is stocking up on potassium iodide pills to protect the nation's 750,000 postal workers against thyroid cancer in the event of a radiological crisis.

USPS told the Associated Press that it was buying nearly 1.6 million of the Food and Drug Administration-approved pills and would be offering them to all its employees. The medication's sole purpose is to prevent the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine.

Potassium iodide is available in areas where there's a risk of a nuclear plant mishap, but now the concern is that terrorists may use nuclear weapons that contain a form of iodine.

In January, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would supply 33 states with free potassium iodide for people who live within 10-miles of the nation's 102 nuclear reactors.

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Leaky Scuba Equipment Recalled

A California-based company is recalling about 24,700 scuba diving air regulators that can leak underwater, potentially causing divers to run out of air and drown, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports.

Oceanic USA has received notification of six incidences involving their CDX first stage regulators. Divers said they heard a noise or vibrations accompanied by air leakage. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled equipment -- sold from May 1999 through October 2002 -- includes the serial numbers 9200001 to 9205622, 9800013 to 9801711, 0200001 to 0213294, 0D0001 to OD3046, and 9D0001 to 9D3273. The regulators were sold with these second stage regulators: Alpha 7, Delta 3, Gamma 2, and Zeta, according to the CPSC.

The CPSC advises consumers to immediately stop using the regulators and take them to a dealer for a free repair.

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U.K. to Offer Prescription Heroin to Addicts

Heroin addicts in the United Kingdom will soon be able to get the drug legally and for free through a National Health Service prescription.

Addicts will have access to prescribed supplies of the drug, but will have to use it in medically supervised areas, with clean needles. The heroin will only be prescribed when other treatments, such as methadone, fail or if doctors believe they won't work, a U.K. government official told the BBC.

The move is part of the British government's new treatment strategy for hard-core addicts.

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Patch May Help Severe Depression

Monamine oxidase inhibitors were the first type of antidepressant approved in the United States. But the class of drugs, commonly known as MAO inhibitors, aren't prescribed very much any more because of potentially severe side effects.

Though for many people they remain the best chance of treatment for major depression, MAO inhibitors can cause severe spikes in blood pressure when taken with certain foods and other medications. But that worry may soon be moot, thanks to a new patch that distributes the medication without the nasty side effects, reports The New York Times.

As reported in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry, 42 percent of patients treated with the new patch recovered from major depression within six weeks. The patch's active ingredient is the MAO inhibitor selegiline.

Monamine oxidase is an enzyme found in the brain and digestive system. When its flow is inhibited to the brain, it seems to give patients a better chance at fighting depression. But when taken orally, MAO inhibitors also block the enzyme to the digestive system. This interferes with the body's ability to detoxify a dangerous byproduct of many aged foods called tyramine.

So patients who take MAO inhibitors are told to avoid tyramine-rich foods, including aged cheeses, red wines and fermented foods. The patch appears to solve the problem by allowing the MAO inhibitor to be absorbed through the skin and target only the brain, without interfering with the digestive system, the newspaper reports.

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Gov't. Panel Waffles on Prostate Exams

A government advisory panel says it will neither recommend nor discourage routine prostate exams.

While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says it has abandoned a 1996 statement that the exams were not effective enough to justify their cost, the panel adds that it can't universally recommend the routine screenings either, citing uncertainty about their value, reports HealthDay.

In today's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, the panel says recent studies have shown that the routine tests detect mostly small and slow-growing tumors that probably are unlikely to harm the patient anyway. And when a dangerous tumor is, in fact, detected, the death rate is about the same among those who took the early exams and those who didn't seek medical help until they started to develop symptoms.

The panel recommends that routine exams be considered on a case-by-case basis, after consultations with patients' doctors. Similar recommendations have been issued by the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association, the HealthDay reports.

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FDA OKs Parasite Drug for Children

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the drug Alinia (nitazoxanide) for the treatment of childhood diarrhea and other symptoms caused by two types of parasites.

The parasitic infections, cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis, are often spread through contact with, or ingestion of, contaminated water. Approved for use in children up to age 11, Alinia prevents enzyme reactions that are necessary for the parasites to survive.

In clinical trials, Alinia proved up to 88 percent effective in treating symptoms of the infections, which, besides diarrhea, could include abdominal cramps, low-grade fever, nausea and vomiting. The infections are fairly common in developing countries, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 4,000 Americans may be infected with cryptosporidiosis.

For people with weakened immune systems, either infection could become life-threatening, the FDA says. While clinical trials proved the drug's effectiveness in children, there was little or inconclusive data among adults, particularly those with AIDS-causing HIV, the agency says. More testing among adults and AIDS patients is required, the FDA adds.

It is fairly rare for the FDA to approve a medication for use in children before it approves the drug for adults, experts say. Alinia is manufactured by Romark Laboratories of Tampa, Fla.

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