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Health Highlights: March 27, 2002

Gov't. Urges 'Pre-Diabetes' Screening Conn. Woman's Anthrax Death Caused by Ripping Junk Mail: Officials Army Can Burn Nerve Gas If Alabama Residents Are Given Gas Masks Experimental Drug May Treat Later-Stage Alzheimer's California Woman Gives Birth to Identical Quadruplets

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

Middle-Aged Need More 'Pre-Diabetes' Screening: Report "Pre-diabetes," which is a new term to describe an elevated but not technically diabetic blood sugar reading, is not only a stepping stone to full-blown diabetes, it also increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and heart disease by 50 percent. New government figures released today estimate that 16 million Americans over the age of 40 are pre-diabetic, according to a HealthDay report.

"The good news is if you have pre-diabetes, you can do something about it," said Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), in a statement today.

The number of people with either form of diabetes -- Type I or, more commonly, Type II -- has reached 17 million, an 8 percent increase over earlier estimates, Thompson said. Of those, 5.9 million don't know they have the disease.

HHS, the American Diabetes Association, and other diabetes experts announced the new data at a press conference where they issued new guidelines for doctors to stave off the progression of the disease.

Chief among these is routine screening for pre-diabetes for all overweight people who are over age 45, either with a fasting blood glucose test or the oral glucose tolerance test. The guidelines also call on doctors to screen for pre-diabetes in seriously overweight people under 45 if they have the following risk factors: a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, and abnormal blood fats. Women with a history of pregnancy-related, or gestational, diabetes, and those who delivered a baby nine pounds or heavier, are also considered at risk, as are members of racial minority groups.

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Conn. Woman's Anthrax Death Caused by Ripping Junk Mail: Officials

The 94-year-old Connecticut woman who died from a mysterious case of inhalation form of anthrax may have contracted the deadly virus from tearing up her junk mail, say health officials.

Findings on an investigation into the death of Ottilie Lundgren on Nov. 21 suggest that anthrax spores that had made their way onto her junk mail at a bulk mail facility may have been released into the air when she tore that mail in half before throwing it away, as was apparently her habit, reports the Associated Press.

Some of Lundgren's mail had reportedly passed through the same Trenton, N.J., postal facility where at least five anthrax-laced letters were processed on their way to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.

It's not known how many spores are necessary to be lethal to a human, but authorities say those with weakened immune systems and the elderly are more vulnerable.

The theory of the source of Lundgren's contamination was announced today by Connecticut health officials at an infectious disease conference held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

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Army Can Burn Nerve Gas If Residents Are Given Gas Masks

The Army will be allowed to go ahead with a plan to burn deadly nerve agents at an incinerator in Alabama, but only if it picks up a $7 million tab for gas mask safety gear for those living near the plant, according to a settlement with the federal government.

Under the arrangement, as many as 35,000 people living near the Anniston Army Depot could receive the hoods and training when chemical weapons are destroyed, according to the Associated Press.

The government had filed suit last month to try to stop the operation of the incinerator, which is due to begin testing in September.

About 75,000 people live within a nine-mile radius of the base, which is about 60 miles east of Birmingham.

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Experimental Drug May Treat Later-Stage Alzheimer's

A new drug for Alzheimer's disease is offering hope that people with later stages of the disease can still be treated.

ABC News is reporting that the drug Memantine, on the market for many years in Germany, has been recently approved by Europe's equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Memantine's chemical properties are different from other anti-Alzheimer's medications, and its proponents say it helps in the later, more devastating stages of the degenerative mental disease.

"While some are calling it a significant advance in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, others remain much more cautious about the drug's potential and how its benefits could be misinterpreted," ABC News reports.

"It is safe to say that Memantine brings no real 'quantum leap' in Alzheimer's treatment," says Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "These drugs are aimed at symptoms ... they are not aimed at the cause of the disease."

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California Woman Gives Birth to Identical Quadruplets

To paraphrase Lawrence Welk: And a-one, and a-two, and a-three, and a-four!

Identical quadruplet girls have been born to a California couple.

How rare is that? According to wire service reports, the chances of an identical quadruplet birth is one-in-11 million.

What's even more phenomenal about this event is that the couple was not taking fertility drugs, which very often cause multiple births.

The Associated Press reports that Ornsee Khamsa and Verek Muy conceived the children without the aid of fertility drugs. The babies were born two days ago at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacremento. The largest baby weighs 2 pounds, 8 ounces, and the smallest is 2 pounds, 5 ounces.

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