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Today's Health Highlights: Jan. 16, 2002

Hospital Nitrous Oxide Deaths No Laughing Matter U.S. Senate Building Declared Anthrax-Free The Body Fights a Losing Battle Against MS Pfizer to Discount Drugs For Elderly Underweight Problems of Youth Don't Migrate to Adulthood 'Alien' Life on Earth?

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

Hospital Nitrous Oxide Deaths No Laughing Matter

In what officals in a Connecticut hospital are saying was a terrible accident, two women died three days apart during heart surgery after they were mistakenly given nitrous oxide instead of oxygen.

According to wire reports, the women were undergoing cardiac catheterizations at the Hospital of Saint Raphael near New Haven when a meter that controls oxygen flow during operations was mistakenly plugged into an adjacent receptacle for nitrous oxide gas, a common anesthetic also known as laughing gas.

According to The Associated Press, the first woman, who was in her 70s, died last Friday on the operating table and had been in poor health before her procedure. So, it wasn't until a second woman died on the same operating room table Tuesday that officials began an investigation that turned up the nitrous oxide cannister.

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U.S. Senate Building Declared Anthrax-Free

No anthrax here. That's what U.S. senators, their staffs and thousands of visitors have been waiting three months to hear.

On Wednesday the Hart Senate Office Building Washington was declared free from all anthrax spores and ready to be occupied.

Maintenance crews then began preparing it for an official Friday re-opening, three months after a letter laden with the deadly bacteria was opened there.

Wire service reports quote a memo from environmental officials saying the building is "clean and safe ... for rehabilitation and reoccupancy.'

A letter to the senate majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was opened Oct. 15, and officials say billions of anthrax spores spread throughout the building. Miraculously, no cases of anthrax were ever reported from the incident, although a number of people were exposed to the spores.

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The Body Fights a Losing Battle Against MS

The body fights valiantly to repair the brain cell damage caused by multiple sclerosis, but some unknown force makes it a losing battle.

As reported by the HealthDay Service, how the body battles MS sheds new light on two methods of treatment, according to Bruce D. Trapp, leader of the research team and chairman of the department of neuroscience at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute.

"It indicates that drug therapies could help cells complete the repair process," he says. "Alternatively, therapy by transplanting [new nerve cells to replace the damaged] cells might not be necessary, or it could be done in combination with drug therapy."

Multiple sclerosis, which affects one of every 1,000 Americans, is an inflammatory disease in which myelin, the protective coating around nerve cells in the brain, and supporting cells called oligodendrocytes, which produce myelin, are progressively destroyed. This causes symptoms ranging from numbness in the early stages of the disease to paralysis in the late stages.

Trapp and his colleagues report in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine on their analysis of brain tissue obtained from autopsies of 10 multiple sclerosis patients.

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Pfizer to Discount Drugs For Elderly

Apparently responding to public pressure that prescription drug prices are too high, U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer has announced it will offer low-income senior citizens substantial discounts on drugs, The New York Times reports.

The average retail price for drugs is about $65; under the discount, the elderly would pay a flat fee of $15, the newspaper said.

Pfizer Chairman Henry A. McKinnell said the discounts were meant to "bridge the gap in drug coverage until broader Medicare reform" is adopted. He said such Congressional reform efforts have been stalled since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as federal officials have focused on national security and the war against terrorism, the newspaper reported.

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Underweight Problems of Youth Don't Migrate to Adulthood

Being as thin as Calista Flockhart or Audrey Hepburn when you're small isn't necessarily going to cause you any more difficulty as an adult than your heftier peers.

The HealthDay Service reports that despite marked educational setbacks in early adulthood, people who were born extremely underweight don't seem prone to the behavior problems that typically accompany such learning difficulties.

Previous research had shown that infants born weighing less than about 3.3 pounds struggle in school as youngsters and have lower IQs than heavier infants do. The new findings, show those troubles haunt them through the teen years and into early adulthood. The researchers tracked the infants for 20 years.

However, the researchers say, as they mature, former featherweight infants aren't more likely than their peers to run into trouble with the police, use illegal drugs or become pregnant as teens -- problems experts had feared would befall them.

"The behavior issue is really surprising," says Dr. Marie McCormick, a Harvard pediatrician and co-author of an editorial accompanying the journal article, which appears in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. "This is a very intriguing result, and really needs to be explored further."

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'Alien' Life on Earth?

Scientists plumbing the bubbling, black depths of a geothermal hot spring in Idaho have discovered a unique community of microbes that thrive without sunlight or oxygen.

Scientists say the organisms are very similar to life as it might exist on Mars and other planets. The one-celled organisms, known as Archaea, grow by consuming hydrogen that is produced by hot water reacting with bedrock 600 feet below the Beaverhead Mountains.

They produce tiny amounts of methane as a byproduct of their weird metabolism. Although types of Archaea have been found before, this community is unlike anything else on Earth.

Details of the discovery appear in Thursday's issue of Nature.

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