Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 13, 2001

Army Making Strain of Anthrax Used in Deadly Letters: Report Red Cross Violates Blood Safety Standards, FDA Charges Britain to Allow Test-Tube Embryo Selection Gene Test Raises Pregnancy Chance 29 States Sue Drug Maker Health Officials Fear Ebola Is Spreading Hey Herb, This Herb Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

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

U.S. Army Making Anthrax Strain Found in Mail: Report

An Army biological and chemical warfare facility in Utah has been quietly developing the same strain of anthrax that was used in the deadly letters sent to media outlets and two senators, the Washington Post reported today.

The virulent, weapons-grade formulation of anthrax spores has been in production since at least 1992, The Post said, and samples of the bacteria were shipped back and forth between the 800,000-acre Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City and Fort Detrick, Md., on several occasions in the past several years, according to government officials and shipping records.

The Utah spores belong to the Ames strain, which is the strain used in the anthrax-by-mail campaign. No other nation is known to have made weapons-grade Ames.

Army officials said yesterday that all the material they have made has been accounted for and that they are cooperating with the FBI in its investigation of the anthrax attacks, The Post said.

Meanwhile, the FBI said it will be sending out cards this holiday season to hundreds of thousands of New Jersey and Philadelphia residents in an effort to find those responsible for the four anthrax-laced letters that passed through the Trenton-area postal processing plant in Hamilton, N.J., the Associated Press reported. The cards will include a sample of the handwriting from the tainted letters and excerpts from the profile FBI experts have developed of the anthrax mailer's likely personality traits.


Red Cross Violates Blood Safety Standards, FDA Charges

The government asked a federal judge today to hold the American Red Cross in contempt of court for repeated violations of blood safety regulations, including shipment of contaminated blood, the Associated Press reported.

The Food and Drug Administration's unprecedented action charges the Red Cross with "a cavalier disregard'' for blood quality standards. The agency's motion cited "persistent and serious violations'' dating back 16 years and continuing despite a 1993 federal court order mandating improvements.

"To date ARC has exhibited a corporate culture that has been willing to tolerate an unacceptably low level of quality assurance and a lack of concern for the public it is supposed to serve,'' said the FDA acting commissioner, Bernard Schwetz.

The Red Cross, which provides about 45 percent of the nation's blood supply, said it will fight the health agency, issuing a statement saying the motion "asks the court to take action beyond the legal authority granted by Congress to the FDA,'' AP said.


Britain to Allow Test-Tube Embryo Selection

British couples will be able to create a child for the purpose of donating umbilical cord blood to a sick sibling, under a ruling announced today that allows them to select test-tube embryos whose tissue type matches that of the ailing child, the Associated Press reported.

But the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority drew the line at allowing the creation of donors for bone marrow transplants because of the pain and risk to the baby.

Couples undergoing in vitro fertilization already may have their embryos screened for serious hereditary diseases. Called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, the technique involves analyzing a cell taken from the embryo about three days after fertilization. The new ruling will permit tests for tissue matching at the same time, the AP said.

"We have considered the ethical, medical and technical implications of this treatment very carefully indeed,'' said Ruth Deech, chairwoman of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority. "Where [pre-implantation genetic diagnosis] is already being undertaken, we can see how the use of tissue typing to save the life of a sibling could be justified. We would see this happening only in very rare circumstances and under strict controls.''


Gene Test Raises Pregnancy Chance

Australian researchers are reporting the first healthy birth using a combination of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and a new version of genetic analysis that helps detect chromosomal abnormalities linked to pregnancy loss, HealthDay reported today.

"The procedure permits the selection of embryos that are normal, at least with respect to the chromosomes analyzed, for transfer to the patient and may lead to an increased rate of implantation and a decreased rate of embryo loss after implantation," said the study authors in a report in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

The study only involved one woman, however, and at least one critic questions giving so much credit to the method of genetic analysis.


29 States Sue Drug Maker

Twenty-nine states and Puerto Rico are suing pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, accusing the company of illegally attempting to keep a generic alternative to one of its drugs off the market, the Associated Press reported today.

New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said Bristol-Myers tried to illegally extend its patent monopoly on BuSpar, an anti-anxiety drug that he said brought the company more than $700 million in sales last year. The lawsuit, filed yesterday, seeks unspecified monetary damages for consumers and taxpayers, the AP said.

An Internet search found that BuSpar sold at $84.31 for 60 10-milligram tablets; the generic equivalent sold for $63.23, the AP reported.


Health Experts Fear Ebola Spreading

Health officials fear an Ebola outbreak could be spreading in the Central African nation of Gabon, as the mother of one of 10 people killed so far developed symptoms of the deadly disease, the Associated Press reported today.

A blood sample was taken from the woman -- the first person to show signs of the disease in Mekambo, a town of about 11,000 people near four afflicted villages near the border with the Republic of Congo, said provincial health director Dr. Prosper Abessolo-Mengue. Results are expected tomorrow.

The highly contagious disease has killed 10 people in Gabon and infected two others, including a woman who disappeared from her village late Tuesday or early yesterday. Health officials fear she fled to relatives in the Congo and could spread the disease, according to the AP.


Hey Herb, This Herb Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Men, saw palmetto might help your bladder, but don't look for it to jazz up your sex life, HealthDay reported today.

A study of 85 middle-aged men with bladder problems found that those who took the herb, which are the berries of a common fern-like plant that grows in Florida, reported feeling twice as improved after six months as did those who took a placebo.

The bad news: Other tests given during the study showed the herb did not live up to its anecdotal reputation for improving sex.

"There is a very large placebo effect [to these supplements]. Still, it is a reasonable option for men with mild symptoms who may be helped by taking it," said University of Chicago urologist Dr. Glenn Gerber, director of the study. The study results are reported in the December issue of Urology.

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