Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 5, 2001

Surgeons' Errors on the Rise, Report Says Scientists Open Leahy Anthrax Envelope Drug, Alcohol Use Up in Wake of Terror Attacks Moms-to-Be Working Later into Pregnancy Breast Pump Helps Signal Cancer Risk FBI Widens Drug-Dilution Probe

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

Report: Surgeons' Mistakes on the Rise

There's been a worrisome rise in cases of doctors operating on the wrong body part or the wrong patient, a hospital regulatory agency announced today, according to the Associated Press.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations said it has received 108 "wrong-site" cases in the last two years and 11 in just the past month, the AP said.

Most cases involved orthopedic or foot-related surgery -- operating on the left knee instead of the right knee, for example. Of 126 cases reviewed by the agency, 76 percent involved operating on the wrong body part, 13 percent involved surgery on the wrong patient and 11 percent involved the wrong surgical procedure, the AP reported.

Such errors could be prevented with measures as simple as using a marker to scrawl messages like "operate here" on the patient's body, said the commission's president, Dr. Dennis O'Leary.


Scientists Open Leahy Anthrax Envelope

Scientists at a germ warfare research lab in Maryland opened the anthrax-laden envelope addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy today, according to government officials, the Associated Press reported.

Examining the contents of the envelope will be a lengthy process, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Testing will not be completed in the next few days,'' said an FBI official, according to AP. "We expect it to be weeks before all the results of testing are in.''

Experts hope the anthrax in the envelope will be the most pristine of any recovered, because fewer people have handled the envelope and its contents. They also believe it will contain the same wording as a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in mid-October, CNN said.

The Leahy letter was discovered and quarantined November 16.

Meanwhile, a federal health expert said yesterday that the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., should be safe enough to reopen fairly soon, according to CNN. But it probably won't be possible to kill every anthrax spore in building, which houses Daschle's office.

The building has been shut since Oct. 17 after the anthrax-contaminated letter arrived at Daschle's office. The structure was subsequently fumigated with toxic chlorine dioxide gas to try to kill lingering spores, CNN said.

Federal environmental and health officials hope to know by the end of this week whether the building is safe for use.

"Even our most exhaustive sampling strategies will not identify every spore," said Dr. Patrick J. Meehan, director of emergency and environmental health services for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It is unlikely that any cleaning strategy will kill every spore."

But, Meehan added, the Environmental Protection Agency "should be able to clean and re-test to the point where we are all comfortable that spores have been killed or removed from surfaces where human contact is likely to occur."

The Daschle and Leahy letters were part of the bioterrorism-by-mail campaign that started in early October. Eighteen people have been infected so far and five have died, all from inhalation anthrax.


Drug, Alcohol Use Up in Wake of Terror Attacks

Substance abuse treatment programs in several sections of the country have reported surges in people seeking care for drug and alcohol addiction in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an addiction agency said, according to HealthDay.

A survey done last week by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows that 13 states and four cities, including New York and Washington, D.C., reported increases in demand for treatment. Florida, the first state hit by the anthrax-by-mail attacks, also saw a spike up.

"I think we're talking about an epidemic of self-medication" for post-traumatic stress sparked by the terrorism, said CASA President Joseph Califano, Jr.

Califano, former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, predicted demand for drug and alcohol treatment would continue to rise as people absorb the impact of the terrorist attacks and come to grips with ongoing threats like the anthrax poisonings.


Moms-to-Be Working Later into Pregnancy

Women are working later into pregnancy and returning sooner to their jobs after giving birth than in years past, the Associated Press reported today, citing a new Census Bureau report.

However, more new mothers may be taking advantage of flexible hours and working part-time.

The report, released today, detailed changes during the last four decades as more women gained college degrees and professional management positions, analysts said, the AP reported.

Current trends suggest that "a shift to more part-time work is beginning to occur, both before and after childbirth," the report said.


Breast Pump Helps Signal Cancer Risk

A variation of the breast pump could help doctors determine which women are at increased risk of breast cancer by catching telltale tissue changes that presage the disease well before it would otherwise appear, HealthDay reported.

Scientists in San Francisco say women with any fluid at all, and especially those with abnormal cells in the samples, are likelier to develop breast cancer in the coming years. The fluid can be easily gathered with a modified pump like the kind women use to extract milk, although not all women produce breast fluid when they aren't lactating. A report on the pump study appears in today's issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"I think it needs to be used with caution, but the nice thing about it is it's quick, it's inexpensive, it's well tolerated, and one could conceivably do this at any doctor's office," said Bruce Kimler, a radiation oncologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.

Kimler, co-author of an editorial accompanying the journal article, says the method isn't meant to take the place of mammography or other diagnostic tools, but rather to give doctors insight into which women are likely to undergo cancerous breast changes in the relatively near future.


FBI Widens Drug-Dilution Probe

The FBI today widened its investigation into a pharmacist accused of weakening cancer drugs for profit, saying tests show another medication mixed at one of his stores was not at full strength, the Associated Press reported.

Robert R. Courtney is charged with diluting the chemotherapy drugs Gemzar and Taxol at his Research Medical Tower Pharmacy in Kansas City.

Now, two samples of the infertility medication progesterone from his store in Merriam, Kan., have been shown to be watered down.

"We're looking at the possibility that a second person may have done these dilutions'' because Courtney had little involvement with the Kansas store, FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza said, according to the AP.

"This is a pretty significant step in this investigation because now it involves another pharmacy on the Kansas side,'' Lanza said. "It involves a whole new set of patients, a new set of doctors and the potential of health ramifications involving these patients.''

Consumer News