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Today's Health Highlights

Health Officials Try to Unravel Anthrax Case Fewer Teens Starting to Smoke Stent While You Wait

(FRIDAY, Oct. 5) -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of The HealthDay Service:

Officials Tracking Florida Anthrax Case

Health officials are trying to determine how a Florida man became the first person in the United States in a quarter-century to contract an inhaled form of anthrax, the Associated Press reports. The case has taken on added significance because of worries that terrorists could use the disease in a biochemical attack.

U.S. officials say there's no link to terrorism in the case involving Bob Stevens, a 63-year-old Lantana resident who was in critical condition this morning, the story says. But they have sent investigators to North Carolina and Florida, two states where Stevens had spent time in recent weeks.

Anthrax isn't contagious, but it can be contracted naturally, often from livestock or soil. Some countries have developed it as a possible biological weapon. Only 18 cases of inhaled anthrax were reported in the United States in the 20th century, the most recent in 1976, the story says.

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Fewer Teens Starting to Smoke

After years of hand-wringing over the increasing number of teens who start smoking, health officials are heartened by new figures that show a dramatic drop in new teen smokers, the Associated Press reports. Experts cite higher cigarette prices and a "cultural shift away from smoking" as factors behind the encouraging news, the story says.

In two years, the number of new teen smokers fell by one-third, the federal government reported yesterday. Still, there were 783,000 new smokers between the ages of 12 and 17 in 1999, meaning that 2,145 teens began smoking on an average day, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an annual review of drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

That, however, is down from the 1997 daily average of more than 3,000 new teen smokers, according to the story.

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Stent While You Wait

A same-day surgical procedure to prop open plaque-clogged carotid arteries works well and is safe, at least at experienced clinics, HealthDay reports.

New York doctors who perform the procedure, called ambulatory carotid stenting, say patients can be treated in a matter of hours with only a local painkiller, avoiding potential complications from anesthesia and saving the financial burden of an overnight hospital stay.

"Patients like [the quick operation] very much," says cardiologist Nadim Al-Mubarak, lead author of the study, which appears in this month's issue of the journal Stroke. "It's a very low-invasive procedure, with no cutting, no anesthesia." And as the new research shows, patients who undergo the outpatient procedure are at low risk of suffering strokes, infections and other potential complications after being sent home.

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Many Blacks Forgo Flu Shots

Blacks are much less likely than whites to get flu shots. That's true even when managed-care health plans offer the shots to patients for free, The New York Times reports.

Health experts already knew that blacks receive fewer flu shots than whites, and they speculated the disparity might be due to such factors as poor access to health care and lack of knowledge or misconceptions in minority communities about the vaccinations.

In a new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers examined the vaccination rates of Medicare patients enrolled in managed-care plans and patients who paid a doctor for each visit. The researchers found that after surveying 13,674 patients in 1996, about 67 percent of white patients were vaccinated, compared to only about 46 percent of black patients, the story says.

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Protein Discovered as Key to HIV Infection

Scientists may have discovered a way to stop HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from spreading from cell to cell, a HealthDay story says.

HIV disrupts the normal processes that occur in our bodies' cells so that it can replicate and then escape from one cell to infect another. This process is known as "budding," and the researchers found that a protein named Tsg101 is essential to it. When they removed the gene that produces Tsg101, HIV was unable to bud from cells.

"Tsg101 is required for the virus to leave the cell," says one of the researchers, Wes Sundquist, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah. "If we can get rid of Tsg101, we can stop it." Sundquist is quick to point out, however, that his team hasn't developed a drug that can knock out Tsg101, and that any medication that might come from this research would be years in the making.

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Birth Control Shot May Weaken Bones

Could your choice of birth control at age 18 come back to haunt you when you're 45? It might -- if your choice is the popular injectable contraceptive known as Depo-Provera, HealthDay reports.

New research confirms that the main ingredient in the shots -- depo medroxyprogesterone acetate, or DMPA -- can cause significant bone loss when used long term. And, say experts, the younger you are when you begin using this contraceptive, the greater your risk of bone-related problems later in life.

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FDA Approves Contraceptive Ring

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first hormone-releasing contraceptive implant, HealthDay reports.

NuvaRing, sold by Organon, Inc., is between 98 percent and 99 percent effective at blocking conception -- meaning that for every 100 women who use it for a year, only one or two will become pregnant, the FDA says. That rate is similar to both the birth control pill and the yet-unapproved contraceptive patch, which releases a steady stream of estrogen and progestin that offers a week of pregnancy protection.

The new prescription device is a circle of soft, flexible polymer measuring 2.1 inches across. It releases a steady stream of the hormones etonogestrel and ethinyl estradiol, molecules like those found in oral contraceptives.

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