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Health Highlights: Nov. 8, 2003

1st SARS Vaccine to be Tested Soon: Report D.C.-Area Post Offices Reopen After Anthrax Scare Pennsylvania Hepatitis A Outbreak Claims 1st Life FDA Rebukes Illinois Report on Canadian Drugs

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

1st SARS Vaccine to be Tested Soon

The first human tests of a SARS vaccine could begin as early as January, although it's impossible to predict when -- or if -- such an inoculation might be available for general use, The New York Times reports.

Top officials from the World Health Organization and the United States told the newspaper that laboratory researchers from Canada, China, the United States and other countries have made significant progress in the quest for a vaccine against the potentially fatal respiratory illness. The world's first SARS outbreak began last November in China and ended in the spring, but not before it killed more than 800 people and infected more than 8,400 in 30 countries.

"Outstanding progress has been made in very little time," Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO's director of vaccine research, told the newspaper. She added that it usually took years, if not decades, to develop a new vaccine.

But, she noted, it's impossible to say when a workable vaccine might be available. Among the reasons: Each research team must get permission from its respective government before it could give an experimental vaccine to a human. Also, history has shown that vaccines that worked in animals often posed problems in humans, according to the paper.

The health officials said there's no way to know if SARS will return this winter. If it does, the only recourse would be to follow measures that proved successful in combating the bug last winter. They included "rapidly identifying and isolating patients; tracing all of their human contacts; quarantining many of them; having hospital workers use strict infection control measures like wearing masks, gowns and gloves; and international travel alerts," the newspaper said.

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D.C.-Area Post Offices Reopen After Anthrax Scare

Twelve postal facilities in the Washington, D.C., area were reopened Saturday after air-sample tests for anthrax failed to detect the potentially deadly bacteria.

The Naval Consolidated Mail Facility and 11 other post offices were closed Thursday following positive tests for anthrax at the complex earlier this week, the Washington Post reports.

The Naval facility handles mail for an unspecified number of U.S. government agencies. Workers at the facility were offered antibiotics on Friday as a precaution.

The decision to close the post offices was influenced by the anthrax attacks in late 2001. Testing back then determined that inhaling only a few anthrax spores could sicken or kill people. Five people died in those attacks, and federal agencies were criticized for failing to act quickly enough to protect postal workers, the newspaper reports.

A Navy spokesman told CNN that the level of anthrax initially detected at the facility was in the range of 100 to 140 spores, well below the infectious level that begins at about 10,000 spores.

All mail is zapped with germ-killing radiation before it enters the facility, CNN reports, so there is little chance of exposure to anthrax. Nonetheless, the U.S. Postal Service says it decided to offer the antibiotics to employees and close the 12 facilities in Washington, Maryland and Virginia "out of an abundance of caution."

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Pennsylvania Hepatitis A Outbreak Claims 1st Life

A suburban Pittsburgh man, one of 185 people infected in a hepatitis A outbreak, died Friday night due to complications from the disease, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Jeffrey Cook, 38, of Aliquippa, was one of five people hospitalized in the outbreak of the infectious liver disease. State health officials have apparently linked the outbreak to a local Chi-Chi's Restaurant, the newspaper says.

A sick restaurant employee who didn't follow hand-washing rules is a possible cause of the outbreak, according to the paper.

Of the other hospitalized patients, two are in critical condition and two are in fair condition, the newspaper says.

Unlike the more serious hepatitis B and C, which are generally spread by intravenous drug use or risky sexual behaviors, hepatitis A is spread by putting something in the mouth (even though it may look clean) that has been contaminated with the stool of a person with hepatitis A, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food-borne outbreaks generally involve fresh vegetables or other uncooked foods handled by a contaminated person, but the disease is relatively rare.

Symptoms include fever, nausea, diarrhea, jaundice, fatigue, abdominal pain and loss of appetite.

State health officials are offering shots of immune globulin to help contain the outbreak. The antibody treatment lessens the chance of acquiring the disease if given within 14 days of exposure, the newspaper says.

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FDA Rebukes Illinois Report on Canadian Drugs

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday continued its attempt to stop the burgeoning number of Americans buying cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, rebuking an Illinois report that claims the state could save $91 million annually through the practice.

"We cannot and must not allow the Internet to become the 21st Century's snake oil outlet," writes FDA associate commissioner William Hubbard, in a letter to the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The letter recounts the frequently cited FDA belief that Canadian drug imports -- via the Internet, U.S. storefronts, or by crossing the border -- are dangerous because they are not subject to agency oversight, they could be outdated, contaminated, counterfeit or contain too much or too little of an active ingredient.

The letter claims that for the state to save $91 million each year, virtually every state employee eligible to purchase prescription drugs would have to buy them from Canada. A Blagojevich administration spokeswoman dismissed the criticism, the Associated Press reports.

On Thursday, a popular Internet operation based in Oklahoma that sells drugs from Canada was ordered closed by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan ordered Rx Depot to cease its operations. She also ordered the Tulsa-based firm to close 85 company-operated storefronts nationwide. In her ruling, Eagan said that while she is sympathetic to senior citizens who buy Canadian drugs because they can't afford to buy them at U.S. prices, "the defendants are able to offer lower prices only because they facilitate illegal activity determined by Congress to harm the public interest."

In a statement published on its Web site, the FDA said, "This ruling sends a clear signal that those who would put profit before safety will not be allowed to threaten the public health."

An estimated 1 million to 2 million Americans are now acquiring prescription drugs from Canadian sources, the AP reports.

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