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Health Highlights: May 7, 2002

Anthrax Attacks Grew More Deadly With Each Letter Drug for Schizophrenia Tampered With Mother's Milk Really is Brain Food Diphtheria, Tetanus Boosters Overlooked by Many FDA Approves New Breast Cancer Treatment Smoke Gets in Kids' Hair

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

Anthrax Attacks Grew More Deadly With Each Letter

The criminal probe of last fall's anthrax-by-mail terror campaign took a chilling turn today with the revelation that the germ became more potent from one letter to the next. The deadliest of all was the final letter, sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

According to The New York Times, the finding brings the FBI back to square one, with no clear suspect in sight. For example, was the mastermind a relatively inexperienced chemist who gradually learned to make the germ more lethal? Or was he/she a skilled professional who methodically boosted the potency of the bacteria with each succeeding letter?

Five people died from inhalation anthrax after the mail campaign began Oct. 5.

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Drug for Schizophrenia Tampered With

Three bottles containing a drug widely prescribed for schizophrenia have been tampered with, the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, says.

Company officials say more than 75,000 letters have been sent to pharmacists and health-care providers across the country, advising them of the tampering. The drug maker says the correct pills were replaced with white tablets marked "aspirin,'' the Associated Press reports.

The tampered bottles have been discovered in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A company spokeswoman says there have been no reports of patient injuries or that any tampered bottles made it past a pharmacist.

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Mother's Milk Really is Brain Food

Breast-feeding strengthens the infant immune system and forges strong emotional ties between mother and baby, but the practice could also mean a few more points on intelligence tests.

Danish and American researchers have found that babies who nurse longer tend to score slightly but significantly higher on IQ exams as adults. The effect is strongest for those who breast-feed for between seven and nine months; after that it appears to fade, HealthDay reports.

"It's not the difference between Einstein and a mentally handicapped child, but it could make quite a difference," says June Machover Reinisch, director emerita of Indiana University's Kinsey Institute and co-author of the study. The work appears in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Diphtheria, Tetanus Boosters Overlooked by Many

An alarming number of Americans are not adequately protected against diphtheria and tetanus because they have failed to receive the booster shots that vaccinations for the conditions require.

A study published in today's issue of Annals of Internal Medicine shows that an average of only 60 percent of adults are sufficiently protected against diphtheria and 72 percent against tetanus -- both potentially fatal diseases, reports the Associated Press.

Researchers say the shortcomings are specifically among adults -- with such an emphasis on childhood vaccinations in this country, most kids are doing alright.

Adults should have boosters for tetanus and diphtheria every 10 years, and the researchers are calling on physicians to make the boosters standard in patient care.

Despite the booster neglect, however, fewer than 50 cases of tetanus are reported annually in the United States, and only 49 cases of diphtheria were reported from 1980 to 1999, says the study.

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FDA Approves New Breast Cancer Treatment

The Food and Drug Administration approved the new MammoSite breast cancer treatment yesterday, which should allow some to reduce a standard seven-week radiation treatment following tumor removal to just five days.

The treatment, called targeted internal radiation, or brachytherapy, delivers radiation "seeds" deep into the breast and just at the site of the removed tumor, instead of radiating the whole breast, reports the Associated Press.

The method has long been available to men for treatment of prostate cancer, but the new method, made by Proxima Therapeutics Inc., is specifically designed for the breast.

Experts say that since the treatment takes only five days, fewer women with smaller tumors may opt for disfiguring mastectomies, which were sometimes preferable to the seven-week external radiation therapy.

Some doctors fear the treatment may not reach all cancers cells in the breast, however, and MammoSite's FDA approval had the contingiency Proxima state that the treatment isn't a replacement for the whole-breast radiation that cancer guidelines call for following a lumpectomy.

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Smoke Gets in Kids' Hair

Many parents who smoke cigarettes light up outside the house or in the garage, thinking they're protecting their children from the dangers of smoke. Not so, finds a new study.

Researchers from Columbus Children's Hospital found that even in homes where parents report never smoking inside the house, children still had measurable levels of a nicotine byproduct called cotinine in their hair, reports HealthDay.

Results of the study were presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Baltimore.

"Parents need to know that smoking outside is not the real answer," says lead author Dr. Judith Groner, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. She says parents must realize and understand how harmful tobacco smoke is to children, and the best thing they can do for their kids is quit smoking.

This study is one of several on the hazards of secondhand smoke to children presented at the same meeting. Two others found that even low levels of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause slight declines in math and reading scores, and can affect the way a newborn's body is able to regulate its heart rhythm.

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