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Today's Health Highlights: Jan. 21, 2002

Mail Anthrax Breakthrough Reportedly Close CDC Unveils 'Go-To Site' for Bioterrorism Info Second Prostate Cancer Gene Found Schools Build On Toxic Sites, Report Finds S. Africa Province to Get Key AIDS Drug Medicaid Cuts Cause Drug Restrictions New Artery Scan Less Invasive, Dutch Study Finds

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

Mail Anthrax Breakthrough Is Close: CNN

Investigators appear to be on the verge of cracking the genetic sequencing of the anthrax strain that killed five Americans and announcement of the breakthrough could come this week, CNN reports.

Quoting sources close to the federal investigation, CNN says that discovering the genetic sequencing could reveal the age of the deadly strain that was sent in the mail and could lead investigators to the laboratory or laboratories where it was produced.

However, the sources said that even that may not be enough to nail a suspect because so many scientists have access to anthrax for research purposes.

The FBI and the U.S. Postal Service have been trying to locate the person or group that began sending anthrax-laced letters through the mail in mid-September to Senate offices in Washington and media outlets in New York and Florida. Two of the five people who died from inhalation anthrax were postal employees.

All the deaths were traced to the Ames strain of the bacteria, which was first isolated in Iowa and has been maintained by the U.S. Army since 1980 for testing purposes. The CIA also uses small amounts of the strain for research.

Investigators have questioned workers at several laboratories in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.


CDC Unveils 'Go-To Site' for Bioterrorism Info

The public's demand is growing for information about everything from anthrax to possible epidemics of smallpox or other contagious diseases. So the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designed and established a new Website to give the latest information it can offer. It's not fancy, but here's where you can find what you need from the CDC's office of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response.

The new site covers the gamut, from instructions to postal workers who may have been exposed to anthrax to a listing of the deadliest bacteria and viruses and how to avoid them. There are even instructions on how to report a "bio-emergency," if you suspect one.


Second Prostate Cancer Gene Found

An international study has identified a gene mutation found in men at high risk of prostate cancer, HealthDay reports.

Although the mutation was discovered in only a small number of cases, researchers suspect that it may play a role in the early stages of the disease. They also say that although this gene mutation doesn't answer all of the questions about prostate cancer, it provides another piece of the puzzle about how the disease develops.

It is the second time in a year that researchers have connected a gene mutation to prostate cancer.

An expert familiar with the findings, which appear in the February issue of the journal Nature Genetics, says the discovery could someday give doctors the tools to screen for men at increased risk of the disease, and may point to new avenues in drug development.


Many Schools Build On Toxic Sites, Report Finds

As a result of tight budgets and a lack of environmental standards in selecting school construction sites, hundreds of thousands of American children attend schools constructed on or near toxic waste sites, the Washington Post reports.

In five states alone - California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts -- more than 600,000 students were enrolled at public schools located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites, the report states.

The findings, released yesterday, are in a report prepared by an environmental coalition called Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign.

Part of the problem is due to the fact that school projects are only regulated by local land-use laws, which the report says can be haphazard in assessing environmental hazards. And with school budgets notoriously tight, many opt for the cheapest land, which can often be on or near toxic sites.


S. Africa Province to Get Key AIDS Drug

An AIDS drug that cuts the chances of HIV-positive pregnant women transmitting the virus to their babies will be made available in South Africa's most AIDS-stricken province, an official said today.

The decision to make the drug nevirapine available at public hospitals in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province runs counter to a national health department directive restricting the drug's use to a few pilot sites, reports the Associated Press.

Nevirapine is approved by the World Health Organization, and studies show it can reduce the rate of mother-to-child HIV infections by up to 50 percent. But the South African government maintains its safety remains unproven and inadequate structures are in place to administer it.

KwaZulu-Natal, in which government studies indicate more than one in three people are HIV positive, is the second province to make the drug available in public hospitals. Two years ago, health officials began distributing the drug in the Western Cape.


Medicaid Cuts Cause Drug Restrictions

Cuts in Medicaid budgets in states around the nation are leaving many without essential drugs that they've come to rely on.

The Associated Press reports that Medicaid programs in states including Michigan, Indiana, Florida and Maine have implemented tight restrictions on drugs that can be prescribed through the program designed to help low-income people who can't otherwise afford prescriptions.

Beginning Feb. 1, Michigan doctors will only be allowed to prescribe certain discounted medications. Drug companies that refused to provide discounts had widely used medications such as Prozac, Ritalin and the arthritis drug Celebrex removed from the Medicaid offerings in that state. In Indiana, Medicaid patients are limited to four brand-name drugs per month.

In some of the states, doctors can still prescribe medications of their choice, but only in making special requests and explaining why the particular drug is needed.


New Artery Scan Less Invasive, Dutch Study Finds

An advanced form of magnetic resonance imaging allows doctors to determine the condition of heart arteries without the semisurgical procedure now required, Dutch cardiologists report.

The technique, called magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), was almost as effective as the standard coronary angiography method in looking at the results of bypass operations, a group led by Dr. Ernst E. van der Wall, professor of cardiology at Leiden University Medical Center, reports in the Jan. 22 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

HealthDay reports that the standard way of determining whether blood vessels in the heart arteries are working is through coronary angiography, in which a thin catheter is threaded into the heart so that an X-ray film can be made. That procedure requires at least a one-day hospital stay and runs the risk that the catheter can damage a blood vessel.

But MRA, which uses computer technology, radio waves and high-intensity magnetic fields to get images of body tissues, can be done without a hospital stay and at half the cost of conventional angiography, van der Wall says.

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