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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2001

Anthrax Vaccine Extension Confusing Many NRC to Give States Anti-Radiation Drug Painkillers May Sap Aspirin as Heart Aid Study Confirms Acne Link to Menstrual Cycle Measles Wiped Out in Western Hemisphere Ebola Virus Spreads to Congo, Health Officials Say

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

Anthrax Vaccine Extension Confusing Many

Confusion follows the government's latest announcement that it will offer anthrax vaccinations to thousands of federal employees who were heavily exposed to anthrax during the bioterror attacks-by-mail, the Associated Press reported today.

Federal scientists began sending out consent forms today, which must be signed by anyone who wants to be inoculated with anthrax vaccine. The move acknowledged the shots are an experimental effort -- and one that Washington, D.C. health officials advised thousands of Washington postal workers to avoid.

The big question was: who really needs the extra therapy?

"We're in a state of quandary," said U.S. Postal Service vice president Azeezaly Jaffer. Thousands of postal workers in several states, including Jaffer, are potential candidates for extra therapy. But Jaffer said they can't tell if they're at high-enough risk to seek it out, and they don't know where to get it.

"I fully understand the frustration," Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told AP. But, he added, because anthrax attacks have never happened before, "there's no scientific literature that says 'you get it and you don't.' It ends up being a judgment call."

With the CDC refusing to recommend that people choose one way or the other, Washington's health department has issued an advisory saying local postal workers need no more treatment and should merely watch out for suspicious symptoms. Anyone who wants the vaccine or another 40 days of antibiotics should contact the CDC directly, said Mayor Anthony Williams

Meanwhile, BioPort Corp., the nation's only maker of anthrax vaccine, took a step toward resuming routine production when the federal government completed an inspection that found only a handful of minor problems. The Food and Drug Administration, which spent the last week inspecting Bioport's labs, said yesterday that the company had satisfactorily addressed most of the procedures it wanted to see fixed before it would allow the company to ship the vaccine, AP reported.

In addition, federal officials are now saying that the anthrax investigation itself is focused on fewer than a dozen U.S. laboratories that have worked with the deadly bacteria. Investigators are working to identify the genetic fingerprints of the anthrax held at each of them, AP said.

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NRC to Give States Anti-Radiation Drug

The possibility of a potential terrorist attack on a U.S. nuclear power plant has led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a step many advocates have been demanding for years: supplying potassium iodide pills to people at risk of radiation exposure, CNN reported today.

Potassium iodide, known as KI, is a nonprescription drug that is proven to prevent thyroid cancer -- one of the main causes of death after radiation exposure -- if administered within three to four hours of a nuclear release. But unlike many other countries, the United States has not stockpiled the drug as a precautionary measure.

The NRC says it will now offer KI pills to all 50 states and it will be up to each state to decide whether to take the pills and how to get the drug to its citizens, an NRC spokesman said. The agency has set aside $800,000 for the effort and is negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to get the best price on the pills. Some Internet Web sites sell KI pills for as little as 21 cents for two 85 milligram tablets, or 11 cents per 65 milligram tablet, CNN reported.

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Painkillers May Sap Aspirin as Heart Aid

Heart patients who take painkillers in addition to their daily aspirin may be sapping the cardiovascular protection they think they're getting, HealthDay reported.

Pennsylvania scientists say some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can handcuff aspirin's ability to block clotting by beating it to the site of action in the bloodstream. Although there's no evidence yet in patients that the interaction is causing harm, the researchers say the effect is strong enough to warrant concern, and that doctors and patients should carefully consider not only what drugs they use but in what order. The findings appear in today's issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Millions of Americans take low doses of aspirin each day to ward off first and second heart attacks and reduce their risks of stroke. Meanwhile, millions more take NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (like Advil and Motrin) and acetaminophen (like Tylenol) for arthritis and other aches and pains. And an unknown number take the two classes of pills together.

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Study Confirms Acne Is Linked to Menstrual Cycle

Acne rises and falls with the menstrual cycle, according to a new study that found that the skin breakouts can follow the same or a similar 28-day cycle, flaring just before bleeding starts and calming down soon after bleeding begins, HealthDay reported today.

Acne is an inflammatory condition of the oil-producing glands and the hair follicles. If anything blocks or hampers the flow of oil from the tiny pores leading from those glands to the skin's surface, it can lead to acne. Likewise, anything that increases oil production can also encourage pimple formation -- including hormonal activity -- and therein may lie the link to the menstrual cycle.

Of the 400 women in the study, almost half -- 177 participants -- reported that they had premenstrual acne. Of all the factors involved in the survey, only age seemed to make a real difference in the findings. Surprisingly, birth control pill use made no difference. The new research appears in the December issue of the Journal of The American Academy of Dermatology.

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Measles Wiped Out in Western Hemisphere

Measles has been all but wiped out in the Western Hemisphere, dropping from 250,000 cases in 1990 to fewer than 500 so far this year, health officials said today.

According to an Associated Press story, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pan American Health Organization attributed the dramatic drop -- more than 99.5 percent -- to an international push to get children vaccinated.

Through Dec. 8, just 469 cases had been reported this year in the 41 nations from Canada to Argentina. Ninety-five of those cases -- none fatal -- were in the United States, and almost all of them can be traced to other nations where measles is more common.

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Ebola Virus Spreads to Congo, Health Officials Say

An outbreak of the deadly ebola virus in the central African nation of Gabon has spread to neighboring Republic of Congo, the World Health Organization said today.

Fifteen people have died in Gabon since ebola was first reported earlier this month, the Associated Press reported. Eleven cases have now been detected in Republic of Congo, the U.N. health agency said in a statement. And a total of 133 contacts are being followed up in Gabon and 94 in the Republic of Congo

Health authorities had feared the disease would spread because the Gabon outbreak was just a few miles from the Congo border. At least one woman believed to be infected with the virus fled Gabon and was located in the village of Mbomo, in the Congo, health authorities said yesterday.

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