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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 1, 2001

Anthrax Cleanup at Senate Building Begins Half of Those at Risk for HIV Don't Get Tested Doctors Say Death of First Artificial Heart Recipient Not in Vain Heart Shrinkage in Space to Be Studied Study Says Mad Cow Disease Won't Threaten U.S. Cattle U.N. Wraps Up Conference on Marine Pollution

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

Anthrax Cleanup of U.S. Senate Building Begins

Cleanup at the Hart Senate Office Building started this morning as workers pumped a deadly gas into the structure to try to kill whatever anthrax spores might remain, the Associated Press reports.

"We waited until the humidity reached the optimum level, did our safety checks and then began spreading chlorine dioxide gas at 3 a.m," Lt. Dan Nichols, a Capitol Police spokesman told the AP. "Everything is going just fine. It just took a little longer than we thought."

Apparently workers had to pump steam into the building so the humidity levels were high enough for the operation to work, officials told the AP. The fumigation had originally been scheduled to start at 8 p.m. yesterday.

The block surrounding the building was closed off so that a $1 million laboratory bus could circle every 15 minutes and monitor the air for gas leaks.

As elaborate as the operation is, officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday workers could not eliminate every single anthrax spore.

Meanwhile, investigators in Connecticut found their first clue that suggests an elderly woman who died from anthrax may have been exposed to contaminated mail, the AP reports.

Traces of anthrax have been found on a letter sent to a home near that of the 94-year-old Connecticut woman who died of the disease, health officials said yesterday. And that letter traveled through the same Trenton, N.J., post office that handled the anthrax-laden mail that made its way to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy in Washington, D.C., the AP reports.

The contaminated letter was found at a home in Seymour, about two miles from the Oxford home of Ottilie Lundgren, said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one in the Seymour house has fallen ill, officials said, and the letter is now in the custody of the state health department.

Eighteen people have been infected since the anthrax bioterrorism mail campaign started early last month; five have died, all from inhalation anthrax.


Half of Those at Risk of HIV Not Tested

Only about half the people at highest risk for HIV have been tested for the virus that causes AIDS, which suggests that U.S. infection rates could be higher than health experts thought, government researchers report.

Only 54 percent of people who reported being at high or medium risk for AIDS said they had been tested for HIV, the Associated Press reports.

The study, released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in advance of World AIDS Day today, cited lack of access to testing centers and a perceived lack of confidentiality as reasons some people don't get tested.


Doctors Say Death of First Artificial Heart Recipient Not in Vain

Doctors told the Associated Press today the death of the first person to receive a self-contained mechanical heart was not in vain.

Robert Tools, 59, died yesterday of internal bleeding and organ failure after living with device for 151 days, the AP reports.

But cardiologists around the country say his case leaves doctors hopeful that such mechanical hearts could one day become a routine treatment. Because these devices are still being tested in clinical trials, they can only be implanted in gravely ill patients, people who are too ill to qualify for a heart transplant and are given less than 30 days to live.

"This device has functioned extremely well. If one could use the device in not such desperately ill patients, the recoveries would be much quicker and the outcome better," Dr. Hillel Laks, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the UCLA School of Medicine, told the AP today.

Four other patients are now living with these mechanical hearts. Another had surgery for the implant in Houston this week, but didn't survive the operation.

Tools' death was announced by the doctors who implanted the softball-sized device on July 2 at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

The hospital said severe abdominal bleeding began Thursday, caused by anti-coagulation problems that Tools had experienced since the landmark surgery. His organs began failing Thursday night and he died early yesterday afternoon.


Heart Shrinkage in Space to Be Studied

Astronauts who bravely spend long stretches in orbit return to Earth with a little less heart.

So far, this heart shrinkage, or cardiac atrophy, has not caused health problems for astronauts, even those who have spent months in orbit aboard the Russian outpost Mir or the international space station now flying 250 miles above Earth, the Associated Press reports.

But a team of Dallas-based scientists is embarking on a long-term NASA-funded study of why hearts shrink in space.

"The first thing is to find if it's something we have to prevent,'' says Dr. Benjamin Levine, principal investigator for the $1.7 million study. Levine is medical director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a collaboration between the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and Presbyterian Hospital.


U.S. Cattle Not Vulnerable to Mad Cow Disease

A long-awaited Harvard study says American cattle are "highly resistant" to the possible spread of mad cow disease, according to the Washington Post.

A current ban on putting rendered cattle tissue into cattle feed -- the primary way the infection spreads -- should keep the disease from ever taking hold in this country, the researchers told the Post today. Several other regulatory changes that government officials proposed yesterday may reduce the risk even further.

Mad cow disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is an incurable brain disease that was first discovered in England in 1986.

New cases of mad cow disease continue to crop up in small numbers around the world. Just yesterday, Japan told the Associated Press it had discovered its third case of the disease.

Japan is the only country in Asia whose herds have been affected by the disease, which has ravaged Europe's beef industry, and officials have been scrambling to contain it since the first case was discovered in September.


U.N. Wraps Up Conference on Marine Pollution

Concluding a week of talks, delegates to a special U.N. conference endorsed a plan of action yesterday that would reduce pollution in the world's oceans and coastal waterways, the Associated Press reports.

Under the plan, new recommendations were approved that would help control land-based activities that produce sewage, heavy metals, radioactive substances, sediment and other harmful waste materials that may find their way into the marine environment.

More than 80 percent of marine environment pollution is caused by land-based activites, officials told the AP.

The conference was the first review of a 1995 pact signed by 108 governments and the European Union to protect coastal waters.

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