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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 24, 2001

Santa Spotters Set to Go No Ho-Ho-Ho for Mistletoe Flu Vaccine in Plentiful Supply Drug Addiction May Rewire the Brain: Study

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

U.S. Tracking Systems Following Santa

U.S. satellite and radar systems are tracking Santa's travels and the latest data on his location can be found on the Web, CNN reported today.

Maj. Gen. Eric Findley, director of operations at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said in a statement that the tracking equipment was successfully tested last week at NORAD facilities in North Bay, Ontario, and at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs.

The release said the test went off without a hitch and that Rudolph's bright red nose emitted a "phenomenal infrared signature" easily picked up by NORAD's missile warning satellites, CNN reported.

NASA said the three-member international space station crew also will assist by monitoring Santa's speed, the performance of the reindeer and the cargo of presents for children throughout the world. "With three people living on the space station, we have a unique vantage point to help Santa on his rounds," said Matt Abbott, flight director for NASA, in a statement.

NORAD said its ground-based radar successfully tracked the sleigh and its nine reindeer during the duration of the seven-minute test. Spokesman Doug Martin said that Santa's sleigh will be escorted into U.S. airspace from Canada tonight by Canadian CF-18 fighter jets.

Children worldwide can phone NORAD's operations center at (719) 474-2111 or visit the "NORAD Tracks Santa" Web site at www.noradsanta.org to view a report on Santa's progress.

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Not Much Ho-Ho About Mistletoe

Mistletoe can be the kiss of death.

For those who need reminder, the Yuletide sprigs should be kept up high, away from the children, say U.S. experts in an Associated Press story.

The small, green branch that is traditionally hung over a doorway for lovers to kiss under may look benign. But it can actually kill the tree it lives on. When seeds are deposited on a tree branch by birds, mistletoe takes root, stealing water and minerals from the host tree.

"It's like having a thousand leeches sucking water out of you. Over time, it will weaken the tree. Bark beetles will come in and finish the tree,'' said Robert Mathiasen, a forest pathologist and associate professor at Northern Arizona University.

And if children ingest its small, bitter berries, it can cause severe stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.

"It's the old rule with any wild berry,'' added Terry Mikel, a University of Arizona horticulturist. "If it's white, don't eat it.''

Still, mistletoe has enchanted people for centuries, the AP reported. It got its name in medieval days when scientists believed it grew spontaneously from bird droppings on a tree branch. "Mistel'' is the Anglo-Saxon word for dung. In pre-Christian folklore and religions, the plant was thought to have magical powers and was used as an antidote to poisons and to cure sterility. The Celtic Druids considered it sacred, using it to ward off disease. People in the Middle Ages hung it in their homes to dispel evil spirits.

Even now, extracts from the mistletoe berry are marketed in Europe and Asia as a possible cancer treatment; the extracts haven't been tested or approved for use in the United States.

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Flu Vaccine in Plentiful Supply

There's plenty of flu vaccine to go around, reports CNN, with about 10 million doses remaining in drug-company stockpiles.

Only half of Americans considered high risk have received this year's vaccination, however. This may be because this year's flu outbreaks have been slow in coming, with reports of flu activity in 25 states, according to Dr. Keiji Fukuda, an influenza expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "If people can continue to vaccinate, we still stand a really excellent chance of preventing hospitalizations and death from influenza," he said.

Concerns that patients and doctors would confuse flu symptoms with anthrax have not materialized. About 57 million doses of the vaccine, sold for about $5 to $6 per dose, have been distributed by three companies.

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Drug Addiction May Rewire the Brain: Study

Addicts may spend years fighting relapses because the deepest corners of the brain have learned to associate sights or sounds with the drug of choice, new research suggests.

HealthDay reported today that University of Michigan researchers say the brain quickly becomes "sensitized" in the early stages of addiction to respond to "cues" -- the sight of a needle or even the sound of clinking ice cubes, for example. These cues then trigger a desire to have whatever drug the brain has come to associate with that cue.

"Drug use is known to sensitize certain neural systems within the brain, causing changes that are relatively permanent," says psychologist Kent C. Berridge, a co-author of the study, which focused on laboratory rats that were trained to associate a 30-second tone with receiving sugar pellets. The sensitized rats pressed the lever 200 percent more than rats in the control group, the researchers found.

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