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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 7, 2001

Anthrax Found in Federal Reserve Mail Garlic Interferes with AIDS Drug: Study Airline Cabin Air Still Murky, Gov't Reports Donor Tissue Key in Knee Surgery Death Virus Enzyme Kills Bacteria Open-Heart Sealant for Kids Approved

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

Federal Reserve Mail Tests Positive for Anthrax

A batch of mail delivered to the Federal Reserve two days ago has tested positive for anthrax exposure, according to the Associated Press.

It was unclear how long the batch had been in the postal system, but Fed spokesman Dave Skidmore said that the mail had arrived at the central bank's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Skidmore said today that the batch of 100 to 150 letters was being retested letter by letter to try to isolate which pieces of mail had been contaminated with anthrax. He also said officials had found no evidence of anthrax in a test of the Fed building itself on Constitution Avenue or in the courtyard around the Fed's outside mail processing site.

And today, a top postal official said the Fed mail may have been decontaminated and unable to cause disease.

Postal Service vice president Azeezaly Jaffer said all federal mail is being radiated to sanitize it, rendering the spores harmless. Treated mail can still test positive for anthrax in preliminary tests, he added.

"We have a high degree of confidence that the spores found here, while they may be anthrax spores, having gone through the sanitization process ... they cannot cause infection,'' Jaffer said.

Meanwhile, batches of mail in New Jersey that were being treated with radiation to eliminate possible anthrax contamination caught fire, apparently because some material overheated, officials said today.

Hundreds of large envelopes and magazines -- 90 pounds in all -- were destroyed during two small fires, one yesterday and one early today, the Postal Service said, according to AP.

"Our engineers believe both incidents are linked to material present in the mail which cause overheating during radiation exposure,'' said John Gilbert, spokesman for Ion Beam Applications, which operates the Bridgeport plant where the irradiation is being done. Officials decline to say what materials might have overheated.

Since mid-November, the plant has been irradiating mail quarantined from the Hamilton Post Office, which closed in October after the office was found to have handled at least four contaminated letters.

On a more positive note, the U.S. Capitol will reopen tomorrow for guided tours for the first time since anthrax-tainted mail was found in a Senate office building in October, the AP said. The announcement was made today by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's delegate to the House.

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Garlic Interferes with AIDS Drug: Study

Garlic supplements, often taken in hopes of lowering cholesterol, can seriously interfere with drugs used to treat the AIDS virus, a new federal study concludes.

The study makes garlic the second popular herbal remedy found to interact dangerously with prescription drugs, the Associated Press reported. Experts already warn that St. John's wort, which claims to ease depression, can block the effectiveness of several drugs, including AIDS treatments and a medicine vital for organ transplant recipients.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health recruited 10 healthy volunteers -- people who did not have HIV -- and gave them doses of an AIDS drug called saquinavir. Saquinavir is a protease inhibitor, one of a class of potent drugs credited with helping thousands of patients battle HIV and live longer lives. The volunteers took saquinavir for three days, after which researchers tested the drug's level in their bloodstream. Then they took both saquinavir and garlic supplements for three weeks.

Blood levels of the medication dropped 51 percent when it was taken with garlic, the researchers reported yesterday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

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Airline Cabin Air Still Murky, Gov't Reports

The airlines and federal regulators have done little to address mounting questions about the air quality in commercial planes since smoking was banned on domestic flights more than 10 years ago, a government study has found, The New York Times reported today.

The report, released yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences, urged the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct research to ensure that regulations on cabin air quality protect public health. The study also recommended that the agency monitor flights and better document passenger complaints.

The FAA said yesterday that studies had not shown any problem with cabin air. "Based on the data we have seen so far, there is no cause to be concerned with the quality of cabin air," a spokeswoman for the agency, Alison Duquette, said. "But we are certainly open to looking at the report's recommendations and moving forward."

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Donor Tissue Key in Knee Surgery Death

An investigation into three deaths after routine knee surgery last month in Minnesota has left two cases unexplained but has made an ominous finding in the third: that donor tissue commonly used in certain knee operations can spread life- threatening infections, The New York Times reported today.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported yesterday that the third patient, a 23-year-old man killed by a rare bacterium usually found in soil and fecal matter, appeared to have contracted the infection from cartilage taken from a cadaver and used to repair his knee.

The Associated Press said the CDC is tracking eight other patients who received tissue from the same cadaver, according to Dr. Dan Jernigan, a CDC epidemiologist. All are alive, but one has shown some possible symptoms of infection, he said.

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Virus Enzyme Kills Bacteria

An enzyme produced by a virus literally chews up the cell walls of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria and kills it, say scientists at Rockefeller University in New York City, according to HealthDay.

However, you won't be able to say goodbye to ear infections, meningitis and other ills any time soon, the researchers add. That's because the tests were done on mice, and even if a human application were available, it probably wouldn't be for general use. The researchers' findings appear in the Dec. 7 issue of Science.

Every year in the United States, S. pneumoniae causes about 7 million cases of otitis media, an ear infection that usually occurs in small children, and 60,000 cases of pneumonia, meningitis and other invasive diseases, 10 percent of which are fatal. The scientists have found an apparent solution in the form of an enzyme purified from a bacteriophage, a virus that attacks and kills bacteria.

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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 yesterday 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.

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