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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 12, 2001

Support Groups Don't Extend Life for Breast Cancer Patients House Backs Bioterrorism Bill Senate Building Still Not Free of Anthrax Americans, Young and Old, Losing the Obesity Battle New Early-Stage Breast Cancer Drug Touted Alcoholism Drug Has No Effect on Heavy Drinkers: Study

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

Support Groups Don't Extend Life for Breast Cancer Patients

Women with advanced breast cancer don't live longer if they participate in group therapy to discuss their illness, a new study says. But they do report feeling less pain and emotional strain than women who don't attend the sessions, HealthDay reported today.

Some evidence has suggested that group therapy can prolong survival in patients with melanoma and colon cancer. And a 1989 report showed that women with metastatic breast cancer in the 1970s lived 18 months longer if they received such counseling.

Yet the latest work adds to a string of more recent studies that have failed to link group therapy with improved survival, at least for advanced breast disease. The findings appear in the Dec. 13 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

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House Backs Bioterrorism Bill

Responding to the potential for bioterrorist attacks, the U.S. House of Representatives today passed a $2.9 billion package that boosts vaccine stockpiles and protects food and water supplies, the Associated Press reported.

A similar, more expensive measure is moving through the Senate.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax-by-mail campaign demonstrated the nation's need to be better prepared, said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

The bill would authorize more than $1 billion for states and health-care facilities to improve preparedness and train personnel; $450 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to upgrade its facility; $1 billion for the Health and Human Services secretary to expand national stockpiles of medicine and vaccine; $100 million to protect imported food; and $100 million to develop emergency response plans for drinking-water systems, according to the AP.

The bill would also require labs possessing the 36 most deadly biological agents to register in a national database.

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Senate Building Still Not Free of Anthrax

The aggressive clean-up of anthrax at the Hart Senate Office building in Washington, D.C., just over a week ago did not fully succeed, lawmakers and Capitol Police said yesterday, CNN reported.

"The fumigation process was mostly successful," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who noted that "some of the spots ... are still problematic."

The fumigation process used chlorine dioxide gas, which had never been used in such a large-scale effort before, officials said. Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said further efforts would be made to remove anthrax contamination, probably using a liquid form of chlorine dioxide. Nichols said he did not know when that process would begin, CNN said.

The Hart building has been closed since Oct. 17, when aides in Daschle's office opened a letter filled with anthrax spores.

Meanwhile, health officials are winding down their investigation into the puzzling death of a 94-year-old Connecticut woman from anthrax.

The best theory is that Ottilie Lundgren, who died Nov. 21, contracted anthrax through a piece of mail cross-contaminated with a tainted letter, federal health officials said yesterday, CNN reported.

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Americans, Young and Old, Losing the Obesity Battle

Too many Americans, young and old, are increasingly overweight, and that worrisome trend is weighing heavier and heavier on the minds of health authorities, HealthDay reported today.

The latest documentation comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which ran from 1986 to 1998. The incidence of overweight children between the ages of 4 and 12 increased substantially over that 12-year period, says a report in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"In some groups, the percentage of American children who are overweight doubled in a 12-year period," said the report's co-author, Howard A. Pollack, an assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The same thing is happening among American adults, and the federal government is trying to do something about it. A "Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity" will be released tomorrow.

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New Early-Stage Breast Cancer Drug Touted

A new class of estrogen-blocking drugs appears to be slightly more effective than the standard medicine for treating women with early-stage breast cancer, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

The drug tamoxifen has long been used to help prevent cancer from coming back after surgery and chemotherapy. Some cancers are fueled by estrogen, the female sex hormone, and tamoxifen interferes with this process.

A new global study, presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, suggests that the drug anastrozole is possibly even more effective. The drug was approved for advanced breast cancer use last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is sold under the brand name Arimidex.

The study, described by researchers as the largest ever in breast cancer treatment, was sponsored by AstraZeneca, which makes anastrozole. It involved 9,366 early-stage breast cancer patients in 21 countries who were randomly assigned to get tamoxifen, anastrozole or a combination of the two. After almost three years of follow-up, 10 percent of those getting anastrozole alone had suffered a return of cancer or died, compared with 12 percent getting either tamoxifen alone or in combination with anastrozole.

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Alcoholism Drug Has No Effect on Heavy Drinkers: Study

A new study casts sobering doubts on earlier claims that an alcoholism drug can truly treat the addiction, HealthDay reported today.

The study, appearing in the Dec. 13 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, says naltrexone fails to prevent drinking relapses as well as previously believed, and, in fact, is no better than sugar pills at keeping hardened alcoholics on the wagon.

Dr. Robert Rosenheck, a Yale University psychiatrist and a study co-author, said he and his colleagues were "totally flabbergasted" by their findings. "Our study has to reduce the confidence that one can have in prescribing this medication," Rosenheck said. "But we don't have a definite answer yet."

The government is now sponsoring a large trial comparing naltrexone, which also is used to treat heroin addiction, with another alcoholism drug, acamprosate. Both medications act on the brain's opioid receptors to make drinking less pleasurable.

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