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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 8, 2001

No Evidence of Contamination at Federal Reserve Defense Department Presses for Radiation Drug Approval New Device Holds Promise for Heart Transplants Surgeons Still Making Significant Mistakes New Mammogram Study Sparks Controversy

Saturday,December 08, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:

No Evidence of Contamination at Federal Reserve

Officials said they have found no evidence of anthrax contamination at the Federal Reserve's headquarters, The New York Times reported today.

A batch of mail delivered to the Federal Reserve three days ago tested positive for anthrax exposure but officials now say they do not believe any of the mail had been in the building.

Laboratory tests are being conducted to decide whether the field tests are, in fact, accurate.

Postal Service vice president Azeezaly Jaffer had previously said all federal mail is being radiated to sanitize it, rendering the spores harmless. Investigators are tracing the route of the bin just to make sure the contents have been irradiated and are also examining each letter for spores.

A related New York Times report said no anthrax was found at the Orlando, Fla. offices of educational publisher Harcourt. The publisher had been listed as the return address on a letter that tested positive for anthrax in Chile.

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Defense Department Presses for Radiation Drug Approval

The Defense Department is pushing for approval of a new drug that could help protect people from radiation, reports The New York Times.

Dr. Thomas M. Seed, head of radiation casualty management at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., said the drug was the institute's leading candidate for something to give soldiers before possible radiation exposure. The drug might also be useful for civilians, he said, including people responding to an accident at a nuclear power plant.

The drug, known as 5-androstenediol is a steroid hormone that apparently strengthens the immune system. Seventy percent of mice injected with the drug survived a level of radiation that killed all rodents in the control group.

Because it would be unethical to test the drug on humans, Seed is hoping the Food and Drug Administration will approve 5-androstenediol under a new rule allowing tests on monkeys or other animals.

Some experts point out that the drug has drawbacks, including the need to be injected, which can take precious time during an emergency.

Though officials say the threat of a nuclear attack is low, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also moving toward stockpiling millions of potassium iodide pills to prevent thyroid cancer in those exposed to radioactive iodide if a nuclear power plant was attacked.

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New Device Holds Promise for Heart Transplants

Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh have managed to keep a human heart beating for nearly 12 hours using a portable organ preservation system, or POPS, reports ABC News. The device holds promise for the 800 Americans who die each year waiting for a new heart.

"POPS might allow us to use hearts and lungs from non-heart-beating donors. We'd essentially be able to resuscitate these organs, then transplant them," says Dr. Kenneth R. McCurry, director of lung and heart-lung transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh. This could greatly increase the health and expand the pool of donated organs.

POPS acts as an artificial circulatory system for the heart, providing continuous blood flow to keep the heart pumping and reduce damage caused by toxic substances which are released when an organ donor dies.

Doctors have not yet implanted POPS into a donor but are continuing to investigate whether it might work with kidneys and other organs and whether it could be used to treat a heart before it is placed inside a recipient. This could increase a transplant's success rate.

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Surgeons Still Making Significant Mistakes

An agency that regulates hospitals says that surgeons are still making significant mistakes and that many of them aren't following simple guidelines the group issued two years ago, reports HealthDay.

The errors mentioned in the alert -- operating on the wrong patient, performing the wrong procedure, and operating on the wrong site -- are all "totally preventable," says Dr. Richard Croteau, executive director for strategic initiatives at the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). Of 150 such errors reported since 1996, 41 percent involved orthopedic/podiatric surgery and 75 percent involved operating on the wrong body part.

The Commission is now taking its message directly to the patients, urging them to ask their doctors to mark the site of the incision with a permanent marker before the operation.

Hospitals and ambulatory care facilities that continue to make these errors may run the risk of losing their accreditation, Croteau warned.

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New Mammogram Study Sparks Controversy

A new study in the October 20 issue of The Lancet questioning the effectiveness of mammograms has provoked a rousing debate among experts, reports The New York Times.

The article appearing in this British medical journal states that, contrary to previously held assumptions, mammograms do not lower mortality from breast cancer. Nor do they help women avoid mastectomies. The conclusions are based on analyses of seven previous studies of mammograms.

Researchers and advocates are unsure how to take the news and unsure how to advise women, according to The New York Times. The American medical establishment currently advises all women to have mammograms starting at age 50 or even sooner, citing statistics that early detection reduces mortality by about 30 percent.

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