Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 4, 2001

Thousands of Letters May Be Tainted With Anthrax, U.S. Says Anthrax Tests Delayed West Nile Diagnosis Health Officials Consider Bar Codes for Prescription Drugs Officials Profile School Killers AMA Says 'No' to Smallpox Shots for Americans Doctors' Organization Shelves Paid Organ Study

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

CDC Says Thousands of Letters May Have Traces of Anthrax

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 down the letters, health officials said, the Associated Press reported today.

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,'' Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed yesterday.

Investigators already have tracked 300 letters that passed through the Trenton, N.J., facility within seconds of the anthrax-laden letters that were 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 decided if this mail needs special tracking and study.

Health officials said that those with weakened immune systems who are uneasy about the potential risk might ask someone else to open their mail. Or they can wash their hands after opening letters, The New York Times reported today.

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

The women were Otillie Lundren, 94, of Oxford, Conn., and Kathy Nguyen, 61, of the Bronx. Unlike the three other anthrax fatalities, neither woman had a connection to the U.S. postal service or the media.

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

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Anthrax Tests Delayed West Nile Diagnosis

Four Georgia men fell ill with West Nile virus back in September, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was so backed up with anthrax testing it couldn't confirm the diagnosis until a few days ago, health officials said today.

All four men were hospitalized and treated, and are expected to recover, according to an Associated Press report. There is no cure for the disease, so it would not have helped the men if the CDC had been able to diagnose West Nile with certainty earlier, state officials said.

The men, who are in their 60s and 70s, all had symptoms of encephalitis, or swelling of the brain -- one of the hallmarks of West Nile, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Commercial tests were positive for West Nile soon after the men became sick. But the CDC could not confirm the cases until days ago because its laboratories have been overwhelmed by the anthrax scare, the state Division of Public Health said.

Before the new cases were identified, the CDC reported 48 cases of West Nile this year in nine states. Five of those cases have been fatal, including that of a 71-year-old Atlanta woman who died in August and an Alabama man who died Oct. 30.

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Officials Consider Bar Codes for Prescription Drugs

The federal government is proposing that supermarket-style bar codes be placed on the packaging of all hospital-administered prescription medicines to help prevent deadly drug errors, the Associated Press reported.

Assistant U.S. Health Secretary Bobby Jindal announced the proposal yesterday at a meeting of the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists. Prescription-drug errors injure or kill 50,000 to 100,000 patients a year, Jindal said.

The bar codes would include the medications' properties and expiration dates. The labeling would enable doctors to more quickly and accurately determine which drug, and how much of it, is best for a patient, Jindal said. The requirement is expected to be in place sometime next year, the AP said.

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Health Officials Profile School Killers

Typical school-ground killers are suicidal renegades who live at polar ends of the social spectrum: They either have gang ties or are loners. They often have criminal records, regularly use alcohol or drugs, or both, and have trouble with their peers and authority.

And slightly more than half their murderous acts are preceded by a note, journal entry or other more direct tip-offs, says a new study by researchers who say that paying close attention to all these factors may defuse campus attacks, HealthDay reported today.

The study results come in the wake of the latest episode of what could have been another school disaster. Earlier this month, authorities in New Bedford, Mass., foiled what appeared to be a Columbine copycat plot by a group of students at a local high school to kill their classmates and then take their own lives. At Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., two young students killed 15 people -- 12 students, a teacher and then themselves -- on April 29, 1999.

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AMA Says 'No' to Smallpox Shots for Americans

The American Medical Association declined today to endorse smallpox vaccinations for all Americans. Instead, the organization urged federal health authorities to continue studying the repercussions of such a mass inoculation, the Associated Press reported.

Some doctors said they are worried the vaccine itself could kill up to 300 people if the entire U.S. population were vaccinated, the AP said.

"There are huge, complex issues involved and due deliberation is needed," said Dr. Ron Davis, a public health expert from Detroit and a member of the AMA's 16-member board of trustees.

Health officials have raised the issue of massive smallpox inoculations to thwart a potential germ warfare attack by terrorists.

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Doctors' Organization Shelves Paid Organ Study

The American Medical Association today shelved its plan to study what effect money would have on organ donations for at least six months, the Associated Press reported.

A slim majority of the 538 delegates attending the AMA's winter meeting in San Francisco voted to table the matter. Proponents of the study vowed to try again at the AMA's meeting in Chicago next June. Doctors say there's a severe shortage of donated organs, and an AMA committee estimates 15 people die each day awaiting transplants.

The committee, the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, recommended in a report that the AMA support pilot studies to determine if financial incentives such as helping with funeral expenses and tax benefits would encourage more people to donate their organs. Many doctors at the AMA meeting, though, found the idea unethical.

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