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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 6, 2001

Leahy, Daschle Anthrax Letters Reportedly Identical Open-Heart Sealant for Kids Approved FDA Issues Warning on Anesthesia Drug Clementines Banned Because of Medfly Surgeon General: Mentally Retarded Are Medically Ignored Legislation Would Limit Medical Residents' Hours Ebola-Like Symptoms Kill 17 in Congo

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

Leahy, Daschle Anthrax Letters Reportedly Identical

The wording in the just-opened anthrax-laden letter sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy is identical to the one sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, two government officials said today, according to the Associated Press.

Scientists at the Army's biodefense laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md., opened the Leahy letter yesterday. But examining the contents of the envelope will be a lengthy process, according to government officials.

Today also, the post office's inspector general opened an inquiry into the government's response to the discovery of anthrax spores at a New Jersey mail facility, AP said.

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., had requested an investigation into why the Bellmawr, N.J., facility was reopened twice before it had been fully cleaned and inspected.

Sandra Harding, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service inspector general, said today the inquiry may include other postal facilities.

Meanwhile, two leading bioweapons experts told a House committee yesterday that they suspected the anthrax in the letters was probably not of Russian or American military origin, and that if a state was responsible, the most likely suspect was Iraq, The New York Times reported today.

The hearing followed weeks of statements by the FBI that investigators were leaning toward the theory that the anthrax attacks were the work of a disaffected scientist, possibly an American with experience in or access to a United States government laboratory, The Times said.

On another front, CBS reported that law enforcement sources have identified up to 91 laboratories and universities across the country that have samples of the type of anthrax used in the Leahy and Daschle letters. The FBI says it has begun serving subpoenas to many of the institutions, requesting the names of all people who had access to the samples going back 15 years.

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Open-Heart Sealant for Children Approved

The government has approved the first alternative to open-heart surgery for children born with a hole in the heart: tiny patches that can be threaded through a vein to more easily repair the defect, the Associated Press reported.

The Food and Drug Administration today approved the CardioSeal and Amplatzer patches, which will easier therapy for some children and the only option for others too ill to survive grueling open-heart surgery. The patches treat septal defects, the medical term for a hole between heart chambers that short-circuits how the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood into the body.

The sealants could help hundreds of patients a year, said FDA medical reviewer Dr. Stuart Portnoy.

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FDA Issues Warning on Anesthesia Drug

A tranquilizer often used to quell nausea caused by anesthesia has raised concerns among health officials that it can cause potentially deadly heart trouble even at very low doses, HealthDay reported today.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning on the drug, droperidol, yesterday, saying it has been linked to 18 heart-related deaths. The agency is urging doctors who prescribe the drug to watch for heart rhythm changes in their patients and to consider other drugs in people at risk of these conditions.

The agency has also told Illinois-based Akorn Pharmaceuticals, which makes droperidol, to add a "black box" to its warning label highlighting the drug's cardiac risks. Such warnings are the most stringent the FDA can order.

In addition, the drug maker has agreed to send letters to doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers reminding them of the heart risks of droperidol.

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Clementines Banned Because of Medfly

The government has banned the import of those popular clementine oranges after larvae of the Mediterranean fruit fly were found in some of the fruit, the Associated Press reported.

The oranges, which are imported from Spain and sold in small wooden boxes, must be pulled from store shelves in 17 Southern and Western states where the weather is warm enough for the insects to survive. The Medfly is considered one of the world's most destructive agricultural pests, threatening more than 250 kinds of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The Agriculture Department initially suspended imports Nov. 30 after larvae were found in clementines in Maryland and North Carolina. Because those clementines were traced to a single ship, USDA planned to allow imports to resume this week, but larvae were subsequently found in Louisiana from a different shipment, USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said today.

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Surgeon General: Mentally Retarded Are Medically Ignored

Too many doctors and dentists refuse to treat mentally retarded patients or fail to understand their medical needs, Surgeon General David Satcher said today.

Satcher called on medical schools to better train doctors about the care of the mentally retarded, according to an Associated Press story. He also called for more government studies to assess the severity of the problem.

Because the mentally retarded are three times as likely to live in poverty as the general population, they are disproportionately affected by shortcomings in state and federal health programs for the poor, Satcher said. Some doctors and dentists won't treat Medicaid patients because the Medicaid reimbursements are too low, he said.

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Legislation Would Limit Medical Residents' Hours

According to proposed federal legislation just introduced on Capitol Hill, medical residents -- the doctors who most often staff emergency rooms across the nation -- are worked to the point of exhaustion, which is dangerous for them and their patients, HealthDay reports.

"Medical residents, who do the bulk of the work in hospital emergency rooms and clinics, are working up to 130 hours a week with shifts that easily last 36 hours without even a nap," says Rob Levy, director of Legislative Affairs for the American Medical Students Association, an organization that helped draft the new legislation.

The new bill, introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., seeks, among other things, to limit a medical resident's work week to 80 hours, a shift to no more than 24 consecutive hours, and an emergency room shift to 12 hours.

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Ebola-Like Symptoms Kill 17 in Congo

Medical experts from the World Health Organization flew to central Congo today to investigate the deaths of 17 people with Ebola-like symptoms, state radio said, according to the Associated Press.

The deaths began Nov. 17 in Dekese, a small village in Western Kasaai province about 435 miles east of Congo's capital, Kinshasa, U.N. officials said. At least 30 people -- including the 17 dead -- exhibited symptoms of hemorrhagic fever, which causes high fevers and internal bleeding, said Auguy Ebeja, a doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

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