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Health Highlights: March 23, 2003

Terrorist Group May Already be Making Biological Weapons Little Response to Pilot Medicare Prescription Drug Program Eastern Europe Bracing for AIDS Epidemic Marriage Isn't Necessarily 'Better' NYC Hospital Gets OK to Resume Liver Donor Program

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

Terrorist Group May Already be Making Biological Weapons

Al Qaeda, the terrorist group most closely associated with the Sept. 11 attack on the United States, may already be able to make weapons containing chemicals or biological agents.

The Washington Post reports that records obtained by the U.S. government, along with interrogations of a captured al Qaeda leader, indicate "the al Qaeda biochemical weapons program is considerably more advanced than U.S. analysts knew."

The newspaper says the evidence shows that plans have been completed and materials have been obtained to make two toxins -- botulinum and salmonella -- and the chemical poison cyanide. The manufacturing of anthrax isn't far behind, the report says.

The Post says most of the information was seized from handwritten notes in the March 1 capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, considered to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that destroyed New York's World Trade Center twin towers and damaged part of the Pentagon. Since his capture at his Pakistan apartment, Mohammed has been in the custody of U.S. officials and kept at an undisclosed location.

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Little Response to Pilot Medicare Prescription Drug Program

A program designed to ease the burden on the elderly in buying prescription drugs so far has had little response.

The Chicago Tribune reports that a Bush administration pilot drug assistance initiative offered to 11 million people in 23 states has had only 57,000 people enroll as of March 1. But it may be too premature to call the program a failure.

One of the problems, the newspaper says, is that the program is being offered through preferred provider organizations (PPOs), and these companies often don't carry the most popular brand name prescription drugs ordered by doctors. But they do have some of the generic brands, and this may have caused confusion, the Tribune says.

"The health plans need to do a better job of marketing because the only way you get people to switch is through a lot of marketing," Tom Scully, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, told the Tribune. "In one county in New Jersey, it is being marketed aggressively and it is going gangbusters, from zero to 44,000 [enrollees] in three months. I think it's going to be popular as people understand it."

The program caps a person's monthly out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $75, with many people paying no more than $40. Current coverage by HMOs has a $200 monthly cap.

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Eastern Europe Bracing for AIDS Epidemic

Escalating drug use and unsafe heterosexual practices are being blamed for a near-epidemic rise in HIV and AIDS cases in European countries that were formerly part of the communist bloc controlled by the Soviet Union.

The British medical periodical Lancet says that Eastern Europe and Central Asia have the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world, according to BBC News. In the former Soviet Union alone more than a million HIV-positive cases have been reported, the study, which was sponsored by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, says.

The two major causes of this are the increasing numbers of people who use needles to inject drugs and the lack of any monitoring or control of prostitution and other forms of sexual activities that transmit the HIV virus.

According to the BBC, the HIV virus has spread in epidemic numbers in the past five years through Estonia, the Ukraine, The Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, because of intravenous drug use. But the report adds, "...what is worrying doctors is that HIV is now being transmitted through heterosexual sex - particularly as many HIV positive drug users have unprotected sex with multiple partners."

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Marriage Isn't Necessarily "Better"

It shouldn't be a big surprise that getting married is not always a road to happiness. In the United States about half of all marriages end in divorce.

But new research reported by the Los Angeles Times appears to confirm that marriage also can't be used as a mathematical or scientific predictor of happiness or well-being. In fact, says the newspaper, satisfaction with one's marriage is such an elusive and personal issue that it can't be used to determine how happy a person is with his or her life.

"We had this strong idea that people's sense of well-being would adapt pretty quickly to both positive and negative changes; it would go up or down, and then return to baseline levels," Richard Lucas, a psychologist at Michigan State University and lead author of the research paper, told the Times. "But it didn't quite turn out that way, especially when it came to widowhood... A person's life circumstances appear to determine their reaction to these changes."

The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and it concluded the difference in life satisfaction scores shrank to one-tenth of a point between married and unmarried individuals. "Very close to zero," Lucas says.

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NYC Hospital Gets OK to Resume Liver Donor Program

New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, who's liver transplant program was shut down a year ago after the death of a participant, has been given the go-ahead to resume the program's operations.

The New York Times reports that New York State health officials have found that the hospital has made the necessary changes in its program to better insure patient safety. Mount Sinai has been in the vanguard nationally in performing liver transplants.

The hospital had voluntarily suspended the program in January 2002 when one of its patients, Michael Hurewitz, died after donating part of his liver to his brother, the Times reports. Shortly thereafter, the New York State Health Department announced it was suspending the program for at least six months while it investigated what happened.

The health department and the hospital signed a letter of agreement that called for the hospital to pay $126,000 in civil penalties. In return, Mount Sinai agreed to increase staffing in the liver-transplant program, and this is expected to improve post-operative care. Record-keeping and staff education programs would also be improved, the newspaper reported. First-year medical residents would no longer be part of administering the liver transplant program.

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