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Health Highlights: Feb. 5, 2004

More Mad Cow Cases Likely, Experts Say First of Three Capitol Buildings Reopens After Ricin Scare Girl With 2nd Head to Undergo Surgery New Test Measures Risk of Delivering Down Syndrome Baby New Drug Approved for Rare Cancer U.S. Bans Fowl From Some Asian Nations

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

More Mad Cow Cases Likely, Experts Say

There is a "high probability" that more American cattle have mad cow disease in addition to the lone Holstein found in Washington state in December, a panel of experts says.

Mad cow is likely to have already spread among America's cattle, in the judgment of the panel convened Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The experts said the beef industry must do more to protect Americans and keep the disease at bay, reports the Washington Post.

The panel's chair, Swiss professor Ulrich Kihm, said that, based on his experiences in Europe, the United States could expect to see as many as one new mad cow case among animals per month in the not-too-distant future.

The agent that infected the American Holstein probably originated in Canada or Europe, the panel concluded. So far, there are no reports of Americans being infected with the human form of the disease from eating domestic beef. By contrast, more than 100 human deaths from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) have been tallied in Europe.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association quickly called the panel's findings "misguided" and based on circumstances in Europe that are different from here, the Post reports. USDA officials said they were confident that with safeguards that are already in place, any contaminated meat would be kept out of the human food supply.

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First of Three Capitol Buildings Reopens After Ricin Scare

With no further evidence of the potentially deadly poison ricin in the Capitol complex, U.S. senators returned to the first of three closed office buildings Thursday, the Associated Press reports.

The Russell Senate Office Building reopened shortly after noon. It was hoped the two remaining buildings would reopen by end of the day Friday, the news agency says.

Meanwhile, federal law enforcement authorities are investigating the possibility that this week's appearance of ricin at the Capitol complex may be linked to two earlier threats from someone upset about recently approved trucking regulations, the AP reports.

Three senior federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the earlier letter sender, called "Fallen Angel," may have also sent ricin-laced mail to the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the AP reports.

The earlier letters, addressed to the White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation, warned that more ricin-laced mail would be sent if regulations that took effect Jan. 4 weren't reversed. The letters were found last October and November, although the one intercepted before it arrived at the White House wasn't disclosed until this week.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer says investigators have found no obvious link between this week's incident and the earlier two, the wire service reports. No one has been sickened in any of the attacks.

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Girl With 2nd Head to Undergo Surgery

A 7-week-old girl from the Dominican Republic who was born with two heads -- actually an undeveloped conjoined twin growing on the top of her head -- is scheduled to undergo life-saving surgery on Friday.

Two surgical teams totaling 20 people -- led by UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Jorge Lazareff -- are expected to work at least 14 hours to remove the appendage, which shares arteries with Rebeca Martinez's own head, USA Today reports.

The girl's condition is so rare that there have only been seven cases reported in medical literature throughout history, the newspaper says. "This is the second child alive with this malformation. The last one was 200 years ago," says Dr. Benjamin Rivera of the CURE International Center for Orthopedic Specialties in Santo Domingo.

CURE International, a Pennsylvania-based charity, will pay for the surgery, estimated to cost $100,000, the newspaper reports.

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New Test Measures Risk of Delivering Down Syndrome Baby

A new test can help pregnant women looking for an early, non-invasive way to determine their risk of delivering a baby with Down Syndrome. The test works by using ultrasound to measure fetal neck fold thickness. Combined with a measurement of biochemical markers, it is effective in the first trimester, researchers say.

They presented their findings Thursday at the 24th annual Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) meeting in New Orleans.

"This trial is the first in the U.S. to study Down Syndrome risk assessment in both first and second trimesters," Dr. Fergal Malone, study author and SMFM member, said in a prepared statement.

The procedure uses an ultrasound picture of the fetus to measure the fluid accumulated behind the fetus' neck. If the neck folds are swollen with fluid, this can be an indicator of Down Syndrome. The woman may then choose to undergo more invasive procedures, such as amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling.

The finding is especially important to the growing number of women waiting until after age 35 to have children. The chances of having a Down Syndrome baby increase after age 35, and at age 40 they are one in 110, the researchers say.

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New Drug Approved for Rare Cancer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first drug to treat pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer that's usually linked to asbestos exposure.

Only about 2,000 new cases are diagnosed each year of this type of cancer, which affects the mesothelium -- a membrane that covers and protects most of the body's internal organs. By the time symptoms appear, the cancer is usually advanced, and patients wind up living an average of nine to 13 months.

Alimta (pemetrexed disodium) was approved to be used in combination with another chemotherapy drug, cisplatin. In clinical trials, patients given the combination lived an average of three months longer than those who took cisplatin alone.

The drug should be administered with vitamin B-12 and folic acid to minimize side effects, which include low white blood cell count, nausea, fatigue, rash, and diarrhea.

The FDA says the medication was given priority review and orphan drug status -- signaling a medication developed to treat conditions affecting fewer than 200,000 people. As a result, distributor Eli Lilly and Co. will be given a seven-year period of exclusive marketing rights, the agency says in a statement.

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U.S. Bans Fowl From Some Asian Nations

The United States has imposed a ban on imports of some fowl and bird by-products from eight Asian countries experiencing outbreaks of bird flu, The New York Times reports.

Avian influenza is still spreading across Asia despite government-ordered slaughters of at least 45 million birds, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. In Vietnam and Thailand -- the only nations reporting transmission from infected birds to humans -- 15 people have died from the disease.

While global health authorities recommend culling fowl as the key way to prevent the disease from spreading, U.N. experts have approved limited use of animal vaccinations to avoid additional mass slaughters, the Associated Press reports.

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