Health Highlights: May 12, 2003

British Docs Took Thousands of Corpses' Brains Without Consent RNA Treatment Shows Promise for Hepatitis B Anthrax Probe Focuses on Maryland Pond Large-Scale Bioterrorism Drill Begins This Week Taiwan SARS Situation Worsens Death of Dallas Cowboys Halfback Probed

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

British Docs Removed Thousands of Corpses' Brains Without Consent

At least 20,000 brains were removed from corpses by British doctors and morticians without first getting the families' consent, says a British government report released Monday.

The brains were removed for research between 1970 and 1999, and that number includes only brains that are still in hospitals and universities. Many more brains may have been removed without permission and then later destroyed, the Associated Press reports.

A law passed in 1961 stipulated that organs could be taken from corpses without permission if there were no objections from family members. A new law passed in 1999 banned the removal of organs without family consent.

The government ordered an investigation after a woman learned her husband's brain had been removed without her permission in 1987.

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RNA Treatment Shows Promise Against Hepatitis B

A genetic technique that interferes with the RNA of the hepatitis B virus may one day offer a new way to treat the disease, BBC News Online reports.

American scientists found that the technique was effective in mice infected with hepatitis B. The mice were injected with a special biochemical that binds with the RNA of the hepatitis B virus and neutralizes it.

With its RNA silenced, the virus has difficulty replicating itself and spreading the infection. It's unclear whether this treatment, called RNA interference, would work in humans.

The research appears in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Hepatitis B kills up to one million people a year worldwide and is the most common serious liver infection.

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Anthrax Probe Focuses on Maryland Pond

How could someone insert anthrax into envelopes without contaminating himself? The FBI has a new theory about the fall 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks, and it's now looking for evidence in a Frederick, Md., pond, according to the Washington Post.

Equipment already recovered from the pond has led law enforcement officials to explore an elaborate theory in which the suspect waded into the pond to delicately put the anthrax spores into the envelopes using a partly submerged airtight chamber, the newspaper reports. The items recovered from the pond reportedly include a clear box with holes that could allow a suspect to wear gloves as he worked.

When the suspect was finished, he simply dumped the equipment and any contaminated materials and clothing into the pond, the theory goes.

The FBI has declined official comment and has not made a public statement. But the newspaper says that, based on the recently found evidence, the agency plans to begin draining the pond by June 1. The case has been code-named Amerithrax, the Post reports.

While not every investigator subscribes to the theory, some say it has become more plausible in light of a possible suspect in the case. The suspect is a medical doctor and bioterrorism expert who once worked as a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick.

The suspect, described by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the federal probe, has listed on his resume a postgraduate diploma in diving and underwater medicine, the Post reports.

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Large-Scale Bioterrorism Drill Begins This Week

Hundreds of people representing 19 federal agencies, and state and local officials are set to find out how the United States would respond to near-simultaneous use of weapons of mass destruction in two of its largest cities.

Known as TOPOFF 2, the largest bioterrorism drill since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is due to unfold this week in Chicago and Seattle, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says. The five-day drill will include mock use of nuclear weapons in one city and release of a biohazardous toxin in the other.

It's only a drill, and no hazardous materials will be released, the department says in a prepared statement. It emphasizes that the drill does not mean that any such attack is imminent.

Representatives of federal, state and local governments will be joined by officials from the American Red Cross and the Canadian government. The two nations have a history of joint counterterrorism exercises since 1989, the Homeland Security statement says.

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Taiwan SARS Situation Worsens

The SARS situation in Taiwan worsened Monday as the island reported eight more deaths and 23 new cases of infection.

That jump in cases is the largest single-day increase since the outbreak began in Taiwan two months ago. The death toll there now stands at 27, and there have been 207 reported cases of infection, according to the Associated Press.

There was good news on other fronts as infection rates dropped in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Worldwide, at least 559 people have died from SARS and about 7,400 cases of infection have been reported.

In Taipei, Taiwan, people going to work Monday obeyed a government order to wear masks while traveling on the city's subway system. Authorities in Taiwan are also installing video cameras to monitor about 8,000 people quarantined in their homes because they may have been exposed to SARS, the AP reports.

In China, National Basketball Association star Yao Ming raised more than $300,000 during a weekend telethon for SARS research.

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Death of Dallas Cowboys Halfback Probed

A medical examiner investigation is pending in the mysterious death of a 23-year-old backup halfback for the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys.

Ennis Haywood died at an Arlington, Texas., hospital Sunday, a day after being placed on life support with an undisclosed illness, the Dallas Morning News reports.

Haywood was admitted Saturday after feeling ill and vomiting. The Morning News reported that he had stopped breathing.

Haywood had participated in a three-day minicamp last week and had been expected to compete for a roster spot on the team. The undrafted free agent was on the team's practice squad last season, and had led the team in rushing in the preseason.

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Published on May 12, 2003

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