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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 3, 2001

Thousands of Letters May Have Traces of Anthrax: CDC Presidential Commission: System Fails Cancer Patients Childhood Vaccine Shortage Worries Doctors, Officials Zinc Supplements Help Undersized Infants Survive Infant Leukemia a Separate Disease, Study Finds

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

Thousands of Letters May Have Traces of Anthrax: CDC

Tens of thousands of letters mailed around the country may have picked up trace amounts of anthrax in a New Jersey postal facility, but it's unclear what if anything should be done to track them down, anthrax investigators said, the Associated Press reported.

It has been almost eight weeks since this mail was possibly tainted in the anthrax bioterror attack. "With each passing day, the lack of further cases occurring is grounds to diminish the risk from any one of these letters,'' stressed Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Investigators already have tracked 300 letters that passed through the Trenton, N.J., facility within seconds of anthrax-laden letters mailed to Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Health officials in every region of the country that received the suspect letters are watching for anthrax symptoms, but so far no infections have turned up, Koplan said, according to the AP.

The CDC hasn't yet decided if this mail also needs special tracking and study.

Meanwhile, federal health officials investigating the anthrax attacks said today that cross-contamination of mail could explain how two women in New York and Connecticut contracted the fatal infection, according to HealthDay.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that the recent finding of a single anthrax spore on a letter in Seymour, Conn., along with traces of the germ at a postal distribution center in the central part of the state make it "clear that cross-contamination of the mail has occurred" there.

Thompson and other officials stopped short of saying that they knew the exact source of the germs that killed Otillie Lundgren, 94, who lived near Seymour and died Nov. 21 of inhalation anthrax.

Earlier in the day, however, the Associated Press reported that Thompson told reporters in Washington, D.C., that the Lundgren case was pretty much solved. "It appears they found enough leads now that it's definitely cross-contamination from some of the letters,'' Thompson said.

"I'm happy that we can tell the American people that part of the mystery's been solved,'' he added, according to the AP story. "But at the same time, I'm concerned about the cross-contamination, because you can't see these little buggers and where's the next cross-contamination going to take place?'

The anthrax was found on four mail-sorting machines at the Southern Connecticut Processing & Distribution Center in Wallingford. The same facility processed mail for the town of Seymour, where one residence received a letter that was found to have a trace of anthrax on it.

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said the Seymour letter went through the New Jersey post office sorting machine seconds after the tainted letters to Sens. Daschle and Leahy were processed there.

In another development, health officials have determined that a letter addressed to a Bronx, N.Y., business located near the home of anthrax murder victim Kathy Nguyen went through the same New Jersey post office the same day as the Daschle and Leahy letters.

The letter addressed to the South Bronx business hasn't been found, but investigators established its existence by analyzing a list of bar codes on mail that went through the facility that day, according to MSNBC. The discovery of the letter offers the best explanation yet for Nguyen's unexplained death.

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Presidential Commission: System Fails Cancer Patients

The nation's health care system is failing cancer patients, who often find themselves battling the system in addition to their disease, a presidential commission contended today.

"For people who don't have resources, there are great difficulties and many barriers in trying to get through the health care system,'' Dr. Harold P. Freeman, chairman of the President's Cancer Panel, said in an interview, according to the Associated Press.

The panel found that restrictions on who is eligible for assistance eliminate many people who need help; others live far from the sources of care and lack transportation and few patients receive full and accurate information about their disease. The panel also said the health care system underemphasizes cancer prevention, with education and screening efforts varying widely from area to area.

Every day, 34,000 Americans are diagnosed with some form of cancer and 1,500 die from the disease, the panel said in a report. Yet 44 million Americans lack health insurance and millions more are underinsured and face hardships in paying out-of-pocket costs of cancer care. The panel issued a series of recommendations, including immediate cancer coverage for the uninsured.

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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 reported.

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

Doctors around the country are also reporting serious delays in vaccines for six other diseases: Influenza, chicken pox, measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B, The Times said.

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Zinc Supplements Help Undersized Infants Survive

Babies with low birth weight are likelier to survive the first nine months of life if they're given zinc supplements, a new study says, according to HealthDay.

The supplements, given to undersized infants in India, were especially helpful in preventing deaths from diarrhea, according to the study, which appears in the December issue of Pediatrics.

According to the study, 20 million low-birth-weight babies are born around the world every year, 90 percent of them in developing countries. Low-birth-weight babies have been shown to have low zinc concentrations in their cord blood , and zinc deficiency has been linked to depressed immunity.

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Infant Leukemia a Separate Disease, Study Finds

Certain infants diagnosed with the most common and curable kind of childhood leukemia still do not do well on the same drugs that cure up to 80 percent of their peers. Now researchers may know why, a HealthDay story reported today.

These children may have a rare variation of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) that is, in fact, a totally separate disease that probably should have its own name and be treated with specially designed drugs, say the researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. They say their findings could lead to new ways to diagnose and treat the disease they propose to name mixed-lineage leukemia (MLL).

Leukemia, a cancer of bone marrow cells, can lead to easy bruising or bleeding, fatigue due to anemia and repeated minor infections. The MLL variant affects only about 100 babies, usually under 1 year old, in the United States annually. But, it kills about 60 percent of those it strikes.

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