Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 19, 2001

Government Workers Offered Anthrax Shots FDA Approves Wearable Device for Ill Heart Patients Holiday Lights Recalled for Fire, Shock Hazards More Than Half the HIV-Positive People Are Drug-Resistant Molecule a Risk for Heart Disease Gout Drug May Ease Pain of Sickle Cell Disease

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

Government Offers Anthrax Vaccine to Thousands of Exposed Workers

Thousands of Capitol Hill workers and postal employees who may have been exposed to anthrax-laden mail since October are being offered the military's anthrax vaccine, The New York Times reported today. The government said the workers remain at slight risk of contracting anthrax, though most have already taken a 60-day supply of antibiotics.

The vaccine, which was developed to prevent the disease, not to treat it, will be available under an experimental program run by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The newspaper says it's the first time civilians are being offered a vaccine against a biological weapon.

In testing on monkeys, anthrax was found to remain in tiny amounts in an exposed animal's lungs up to 75 days, even with antibiotic treatment. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged that the government has just begun to learn about how to treat the disease in people.

Side effects of the vaccine may include swelling, headache, rashes, chills and fever, the newspaper said. In fewer than one in 100,000 cases, the paper reported, recipients may develop a severe allergic reaction.


FDA OKs Portable Device to Treat Abnormal Heartbeat

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a vest-like device to monitor and treat patients at risk of dying from sudden cardiac arrest. Up to now, this type of device, known as a heart defibrillator, was implanted in the chest.

The new product, made by Lifecor, Inc., based in Pittsburgh, is the first such device that can be worn outside the body. It detects abnormal heart function and delivers an electric shock to restore normal heart rhythm.

The product, approved Tuesday, is worn around the chest. It consists of an electrode assembly connected to an alarmed monitor, which is contained in a holster at the waist. The patient can connect the monitor to an external modem and transmit heart data directly to his doctor.

The product was tested on 289 heart patients at 16 medical centers in the U.S. and Europe. It was worn for an average of 20 hours daily for about three months. Unnecessary shocks were reported in about 2 percent of patients; the manufacturer says it has taken steps to reduce that rate. About 6 percent of users reported a temporary skin rash.


Christmas Lights Recalled

Two manufacturers have recalled decorative Christmas lights, citing undersized wiring that could pose electric shock and fire hazards, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said.

NBG Rice Lights

Number Recalled: 100,000 sets.

Where Purchased: Novelty and holiday stores.

How to Return: Call NBG International at 877-532-8949 for free replacement.

Winstar Lights

Number Recalled: 9,000 sets.

Where Purchased: Discount and dollar stores in New York and New Jersey.

How to Return: Take item back to store for free replacement or refund.


Half the HIV-Positive People Now Have Drug Resistance

More than half the long-time HIV-positive patients have developed resistance to at least one of the drugs that could help keep them alive, researchers have found, HealthDay reported yesterday.

The true number may be even higher because the statistics were compiled in 1998 and 1999. Dr. Samuel Bozzett, at the University of California at San Diego, and his colleagues studied the blood of 1,647 people nationwide who tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. All those studied had been HIV-positive during an earlier study in 1996, when the AIDS cocktail was first developed.

Of the patients who had significant levels of the AIDS virus in their blood, 78 percent showed resistance to at least one HIV drug; 51 percent of all HIV-positive patients were resistant. The study found the patients were most resistant to the oldest class of AIDS drugs, known as nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, of which AZT is perhaps the best known.


Molecule a Risk for Heart Disease

Leptin, the obesity molecule that has been the subject of intense research for the last decade, may be a new, independent risk factor for heart disease, Scottish researchers say, HealthDay reported.

A protein secreted by fat cells, leptin was discovered by Dr. Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University, who found that mice lacking the gene for leptin were unusually fat and diabetic. Leptin sends a "stop eating" signal to the brain -- a discovery that prompted the biotechnology company Amgen to pay $20 million for the rights to develop leptin as a natural way of inducing weight loss.

Now a group led by Dr. Naveed Sattar of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary says its decade-long study reveals a relationship between blood levels of leptin and the risk of heart disease.

"The risk associated with high levels of leptin is of the same extent associated with high blood pressure or high levels of LDL cholesterol," said Sattar. His group reported the finding in the current issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.


Gout Drug May Ease Pain of Sickle Cell Disease

A drug designed to treat gout may relieve some of the painful complications of sickle cell disease, according to HealthDay.

New research suggests that the drug, allopurinol, inhibits an enzyme linked to the circulatory disorder that commonly occurs in people with sickle cell disease.

Although human trials have yet to begin, the findings, published in yesterday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer hope to the estimated 72,000 Americans living with the disease.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder that causes red blood cells to become crescent- or sickle-shaped. The distortion makes it more difficult for these oxygen-carrying cells to maneuver through blood vessels, causing blockages and tissue damage.

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