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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 2, 2001

Childhood Vaccine Shortage Worries Officials, Doctors Anthrax Cleanup Completed; More Clues in Conn. case AMA Debates Study of Paying Organ Donors Half of Those at Risk for HIV Don't Get Tested Heart Shrinkage in Space to Be Examined Study Says Mad Cow Disease Won't Threaten U.S. Cattle

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

Childhood Vaccine Shortage Worries Doctors, Officials

Government officials and doctors around the country are alarmed by recent shortages and delays in the production of childhood vaccines, the New York Times reports.

Some states have been forced to ration vaccines and revise immunization policies to deal with the shortage, the Times says.

The federal government sent a bulletin to the states last week that reported shortages of vaccines for four of the 11 diseases preventable through routine immunizations: Diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough and pneumococcal disease, which can cause meningitis and pneumonia.

But the bad news doesn't end there, government officials note. Doctors around the country are reporting serious delays in vaccines for six other diseases: influenza, chicken pox, measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B.

The Times reports the reasons for the shortage are twofold. First, some manufacturers have stopped making vaccines because they deemed them unprofitable and they were not required by law to tell the government they had stopped making the vaccines. Second, the two biggest manufacturers of vaccines instituted production changes in recent months that led to a shortage of certain vaccines.

Congress is now looking at whether the government should play a larger role in monitoring the nation's vaccine supply, and the Institute of Medicine has suggested forming a National Vaccine Authority to help companies produce and distribute vaccines to American children.


Anthrax Cleanup Ends; More Clues in Conn. Case

The cleanup of deadly anthrax spores at the Hart Senate Office Building was completed today, the Associated Press reports.

In a 20-hour operation, crews first filled the building with deadly chlorine dioxide gas and then dissipated that gas with another chemical. Today, workers took thousands of air and strip samples from Senate offices to be tested for anthrax. The results are expected within a week.

The block surrounding the building had been closed off so that a $1 million laboratory bus could circle every 15 minutes and monitor the air for gas leaks. Only minute amounts of the gas ever showed up, elated Environmental Protection Agency officials told the AP today.

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

Meanwhile, investigators in Connecticut told the AP today that they found trace amounts of anthrax at the postal facility that sorts mail for the town where a 94-year-old woman died of the disease last month.

The spores were found on four sorting machines during tests at the Southern Connecticut Processing and Distribution Center in Wallingford. Officials stressed that the amounts found were so minute that state residents don't need to panic.

Connecticut John Rowland said the Connecticut letter went through a New Jersey post office sorting machine seconds after the tainted letters to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy were processed. All three letters went through the New Jersey facility on Oct. 9, Rowland said.

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


AMA Debates Study Over Paying Organ Donors

Members of the American Medical Association (AMA) spent today debating whether to study the wisdom of paying people to donate their vital organs, the Associated Press reports.

At a meeting of the AMA's House of Delegates, the policy-setting body for the physicians' group, doctors noted such financial incentives are illegal, banned by Congress in 1984. But the current system leaves people who are in desperate need of organs relying solely on a volunteer system that is failing.

"We see little moral value in burying perfectly good organs," Dr. Stephen Schwartz, who represented the 36 Pennsylvania delegates during the debate Sunday, told the AP.

If the AMA did vote to support studies that determined whether paying potential donors would lead to more organ donations, federal law would have to be changed to allow such research.

About 15,000 people die each year while waiting for transplants, statistics show, and only a third of potentially valuable organs are ever donated.


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


Heart Shrinkage in Space to Be Examined

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 yesterday. 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 Friday, 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.

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