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Health Highlights: Feb. 4, 2004

White House Ricin Letter Revealed; Capitol Checked for Tainted Mail FDA Seeks to Highlight Drug Risks Warning Over Fake Contraceptive Patches New Artery Procedure May Cut Complications Asian Bird Flu Toll Jumps to 15 Ex-Surgeons General Back Plan to Combat Smoking

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

White House Ricin Letter Revealed; Capitol Checked for Tainted Mail

The U.S. Secret Service intercepted a letter to the White House last November that contained a vial of the toxin ricin, unnamed law enforcement sources tell the Washington Post. The previously undisclosed revelation came hours after the powerful poison was discovered at the U.S. Capitol offices of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Thousands of congressional staffers remained locked out of their offices Wednesday as federal law enforcement authorities continued to screen all unopened mail for the toxin. Three Senate buildings closed after the discovery Monday afternoon will remain shut for at least another four or five days as investigators begin looking into how the mysterious white powder made its way into the Capitol complex, the newspaper reports.

The Associated Press reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed, through genetic testing, that the substance was ricin.

It wasn't immediately known if there was any connection between Monday's Senate discovery and the White House finding last fall. The earlier incident was never made public, and the Secret Service delayed sharing the information for at least nine days with the FBI, the Post reports, citing six unidentified sources.

The White House letter, signed by someone using the name "Fallen Angel", contained complaints about regulations affecting the trucking industry. It has been linked to a similarly tainted letter discovered last October at a South Carolina postal facility, the sources tell the Post.

The Secret Service says it won't discuss the case or why it was kept secret, citing its ongoing investigation, the newspaper reports.

Meanwhile, following the latest incident at the Capitol, no illnesses have been reported, and tests of the complex's air circulation system have come back negative for ricin, the Post says. Congressional staffers who may have been exposed to the powder found in Frist's office will be monitored for the next few days for symptoms of ricin exposure -- including fever, cough, and fluid buildup in the lungs.

The Capitol wasn't the only place where ricin contamination had been suspected. An envelope discovered early Tuesday at a postal facility in Wallingford, Conn., containing a powdery gray substance has been determined to contain wood ash -- not ricin as first feared, state health officials say.

FDA Seeks to Highlight Drug Risks

The Food and Drug Administration wants advertisements on drugs and medical devices to be easier for consumers to understand by highlighting key risk factors.

Currently, the ads in these direct-to-consumer products follow the law by listing verbatim what the various risks are of one drug or device. This practice is adequate "but not user friendly," the FDA says in a statement.

"While this risk information is technically in compliance in that it contains important information on benefits and risks, it does not convey key information effectively to many consumers," the statement says. "There is widespread evidence that consumers want useful information on benefits and risks in the ads that they encounter."

A 2002 survey found that 73 percent of consumers read the disclaimers " a little" or not at all.

The agency is seeking "less cluttered" information in the ads, and that the most important risks be highlighted in a consumer-friendly manner. "We intend to do all we can under the law to make sure that the information conveyed by prescription drug promotion is as useful as possible," FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan says in a statement.

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Warning Over Fake Contraceptive Patches

Johnson & Johnson and the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement Wednesday warning that an Indian Internet site is selling phony contraceptive patches.

The patches, sold at http://www.rxpharmacy.ws, contain no active ingredient and will not protect against pregnancy.

The site is apparently run by American Style Products of New Delhi. The FDA "urges consumers to treat any drugs purchased from this firm as being suspect," the agency said in a statement. Other drugs and devices sold at this site are under investigation.

Johnson & Johnson's Ortho Evra patch is 1.75 inches square, beige, and comes in a sealed white pouch. The counterfeit patch is 1.5 square inches, brown, and has five holes that appear as red dots. There is no sealed pouch or lot number, as there is on the real patch.

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New Artery Procedure May Cut Complications

A new way to reopen the arteries that supply blood to the brain may cut the high risk of complications during the surgery.

Researchers are experimenting with the new procedure for the surgery, called a carotid endarterectomy, and they are borrowing from an operation done on the heart. Much like an angioplasty, balloons are placed in arteries in the groin and moved up to the carotid arteries. Once the arteries are plowed, they then place a stent in the arteries.

The experiment is being conducted on 21 patients who had had a previous carotid endarterectomy and whose arteries had become re-clogged.

Because the surgery is done from inside the artery, complications were expected to be fewer, and so far that is true. "In this small sample, complications were zero," Dr. Ricardo A. Hanel, a neurovascular fellow at the University of Buffalo, says in a statement.

As many as 10 percent of patients whose arteries have re-clogged after a carotid endarterectomy suffer complications, including stroke and death, and 17 percent suffer from cranial nerve palsy.

The research was presented Wednesday at the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Neurological Surgeons and American Society on Intervention Therapy Neuroradiology in San Diego.

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Asian Bird Flu Toll Jumps to 15

Asia's human death toll from bird flu rose to 15 Wednesday with new deaths reported in Vietnam and Thailand, the only two nations stricken with cases among people.

"The [avian flu] virus is faster than we are," an official with the World Health Organization concedes to the Associated Press, although he says the outbreak is far from being declared an epidemic.

The human toll has risen to 10 in Vietnam and five in Thailand. China, while it has reported no human cases, says the virus is now confirmed or suspected among fowl in 12 of its 31 regions, the AP reports.

The nations of Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan are also battling the disease among their poultry stocks, and at least 45 million birds have been slaughtered in government-ordered culls, the wire service says.

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Ex-Surgeons General Back Plan to Combat Smoking

A trio of former U.S. surgeons general and other health advocates are endorsing a 10-point anti-smoking plan aimed at helping 5 million American quit the habit within a year and preventing 3 million premature deaths, the group says.

The "National Action Plan for Tobacco Cessation," published in February's American Journal for Public Health, advocates public- and private-sector steps including, a $2-per-pack tax hike on cigarettes, which would subsidize a smokers' health fund.

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