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Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2004

Powder Found in U.S. Senate Office Said to be Ricin Test May Improve Detection of Early Stage Ovarian Cancer Report: Nations Underestimate Benefits of Sexual Health Care 13th Person Dies from Bird Flu

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

Powder Found in U.S. Senate Office Said to be Ricin

Mail containing a white powder delivered to the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., has been identified as the poison ricin, the senator said Tuesday.

Discovery of the powder prompted the closure of three Senate office buildings, The New York Times reports.

Capitol police have advised lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives not to open any mail for the time being.

In Connecticut, a postal worker late Monday found an unidentified powder leaking from an envelope addressed to the Republican National Committee, but test results released Tuesday night showed the substance was not ricin. The incident occurred at the Wallingford postal sorting center, the same site where anthrax was found in 2001. A 94-year-old Oxford, Conn., woman died after receiving mail that had passed through the facility. She was one of five people who died nationwide in the anthrax attacks that fall.

Of the discovery in the Senate, Majority Leader Frist was angry. "This is a criminal action," he told the Associated Press. His staff discovered the powder in their Dirksen Senate Office Building mailroom Monday afternoon. A government official speaking on condition of anonymity told the AP that the incident did not appear to be the work of international terrorists.

The Dirksen and two other Senate buildings were closed while authorities checked other mail in the facilities. Though mail has been irradiated at the Capitol since the 2001 anthrax attacks, radiation is unlikely to have any effect on ricin.

The Senate canceled much of its business Tuesday, despite an early attempt at showing business as usual. Senate office buildings where 6,200 people work were closed. Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said it would be four or five days before the buildings would be reopened. Police briefly closed an area on the first floor of the Capitol building Tuesday morning upon discovery of what was called a suspicious package, the AP reports. Its contents haven't been disclosed.

Between 40 and 50 people on the floor where the powder was discovered on Monday were decontaminated, considerably more than originally reported.

But by Tuesday afternoon no one had become sick, the wire service says. If symptoms of ricin poisoning have not surfaced in about eight hours, contamination is unlikely, added Frist, who was a surgeon before he was elected to the Senate.

Ricin, derived from a castor bean plant, is twice as deadly as cobra venom, the AP reports. It's relatively easy to make, and can be manufactured to be inhaled, eaten or injected.

Symptoms of ricin poisoning are sudden fever, cough and excess fluid in the lungs, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited by the AP. These symptoms could be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death. There is no known antidote.

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Test May Improve Detection of Early Stage Ovarian Cancer

A new finger prick blood test that may be able to detect early stage ovarian cancer more accurately than any current test is expected to be available in the United States within the next few months.

If it works as expected, the test could have a major impact on public health, The New York Times reports.

When it's detected in the early stages, ovarian cancer is treatable by surgery. The five-year survival rate in such cases is 90 percent. Currently, about 75 percent of ovarian cancer cases are detected after the disease has reached a more advanced stage, a point when the five-year survival rate is 35 percent.

This new test looks for a complex protein signature in the blood sample. Similar tests are being developed for other cancers, including prostate, pancreatic and breast cancer. This kind of test may also be able to detect other diseases.

Some experts caution that this ovarian cancer test is unproven and note that it's being put on the market using a process that doesn't require U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

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Report: Nations Underestimate Benefits of Sexual Health Care

Developed nations need to live up to multi-billion dollar pledges to fund sexual and reproductive health care, says a new United Nations-sponsored report.

The report says that developed countries have failed to meet funding commitments they made at a conference 10 years ago because they underestimate the benefits of sexual and reproductive health care.

In 2000, developed countries provided $2.6 billion for sexual and reproductive health services. That's less than half of what they had pledged for that year, the Associated Press reports.

The U.N. report says sexual and reproductive health issues account for a large share of the disease burden around the world.

An extra $3.9 billion each year for contraceptive services and supplies could save the lives of 1.5 million women and children annually. That amount could also preserve 27 million years of healthy life, reduce induced abortions by 64 percent, and decrease pregnancy-related illnesses, the report says.

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13th Person Dies from Bird Flu

A 13th human death was reported Tuesday from Asia's growing bird flu epidemic, as international health experts met for a three-day conference in Rome to discuss the crisis, CBS News reports.

A 7-year-old Thai boy is the fourth person from Thailand to succumb to the disease, while nine people have died in Vietnam. Those are the only two nations reporting human cases.

China, meanwhile, says that fowl in six of its provinces are now believed infected with the deadly virus.

While most of the human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds, investigators are still probing whether two Vietnamese sisters may represent the first instances of person-to-person transmission. The sisters, both of whom are among the dead, may have acquired the virus from a brother who died earlier.

The World Health Organization sought to calm those worried that the growing human death toll represented the beginnings of a global pandemic. "We have a strain of influenza with the potential to pick up human genes and we're nowhere close to declaring a pandemic," WHO spokesman Mike Ryan said.

World health officials worry that the deadly bird flu strain could merge with the genetic contents of a flu germ that targets people, causing a hybrid strain that no known vaccine or antiviral medication could control.

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