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Today's Health Highlights: Jan.  6, 2002

Gabon Seals Off Ebola Province Elevated Mercury Levels Found in WTC Workers Researchers Develop Robotic Scarecrow Surgery Safaris Lift More Than Spirits Alternative Weeklies on Fire With Tobacco Ads Head Shape Can Affect Snoring

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

Gabon Seals Off Ebola-Outbreak Province

The African nation of Gabon has sealed off an entire province in an effort to contain an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

According to the Associated Press, the country's security and defense forces were helping local officials control movement in and out of the northeastern frontier province of Ogooue Ivindo, where the virus has already killed 17 people. There were no reports, however, that the disease was spreading.

Authorities had previously controlled access to several affected villages in Ogooue Ivindo -- a remote, thinly populated region inhabited by pygmies and other tribes who hunt in the vast rain forests of the Western Africa country.

Medical officials confirmed 20 Ebola cases in Gabon, of whom 17 have died since the outbreak began in October. Twelve other cases, including six fatalities, were identified in the neighboring Republic of Congo, where authorities had already sealed off a 125-mile region of the country's border with Gabon.

The World Health Organization said medical experts were monitoring 147 people in Gabon and 95 in the Republic of Congo who may have had contact with those infected with the disease.

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Elevated Mercury Levels Found in WTC Workers

Concerns about the safety of work conditions at the World Trade Center site in New York City have been raised again when four police officers working at the site were found two days ago to have elevated levels of mercury in their blood.

The four police officers were in good health and showed no signs of mercury poisoning, but have been reassigned as a precaution, say officials.

Health officials report that an acceptable mercury level is 0 to 13 micrograms per liter of blood. Of the four officers, two had 14 micrograms per liter, one had 18 and another 24, says Allen Morrison, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Air and water samples taken earlier at the site showed no detectable levels of mercury. But increased levels of heavy metals, including mercury, were found in preliminary tests at a building across from the site, which had housed the Legal Aid Society prior to the Sept. 11 attack.

The concern about toxins at the site prompted the Port Authority to begin testing workers in November. Of the 58 tests conducted, 49 results came back and four were found to be were elevated, says Morrison.

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Head Shape Can Affect Snoring

If you've got a round head, you may be at greater risk of becoming a chronic snorer and developing sleep apnea than someone with a thinner face.

New research reported by the Associated Press compared the head shapes of 60 snorers and 60 people with no history of snoring. The subjects were given "craniofacial risk indexes" based on X-rays measuring distances from teeth to esophagus, nose to nasal passage and cheek to jaw. Using the index, researchers were able to predict which subjects suffered from sleep apnea problems in three out of four cases.

"As the head gets relatively wider, the airway becomes relatively narrower from front to back," said Dr. Mark Hans, chairman of orthodontics at Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry.

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Researchers Develop Robotic Scarecrow

You might call it the "Demolition Decoy." Researchers at Louisiana State University have developed a solar-powered, robotic scarecrow that quietly cruises through ponds and greets feathered intruders with a blast from a water cannon.

The Associated Press reports that the "scare-bot" is being developed to protect catfish and crawfish ponds that are visited just a tad too frequently by pelicans and cormorants, costing farmers tens of thousands of dollars.

The basic model for the robot has paddlewheels and pontoons. Sensors tell it to back up and turn when it hits shore, and a camera and software tell the device to recognize color and motion.

Once a few kinks have been worked out, the researchers say the robot may sell for about $500 to $600.

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Surgery Safaris Lift More Than Spirits

The latest twist in adventure travel is leaving vacationers looking more than a little refreshed when they get home.

On this adventure, the animals you come face-to-face with will be among the first to view your new facelift.

The BBC reported today that Surgeon and Safari, a Cape Town, South Africa, company, is among a growing number of companies luring travelers who want to combine cut-rate cosmetic surgery with vacation.

The company has about 20 clients a month who stay in a top hotel, have the cosmetic surgery of their choice, recover by the pool and then it's off for a safari.

Lorraine Melvill, managing director of Surgeon and Safari, says being on a safari is actually an ideal place to have an undercover recovery.

"Many of our facelift ladies feel quite shy of the bruising at first, but once they realize they don't know anyone here, they go off in sunglasses and a hat and have a wonderful time," she told the BBC.

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Alternative Weeklies On Fire With Tobacco Ads

After coming under heavy fire for marketing cigarette smoking to youth, tobacco companies are blowing smoke in a new direction -- towards young adult-oriented alternative newspapers, new research shows.

In observing ads in two alternative weeklies in San Francisco and Philadelphia, researchers found that the numbers of tobacco ads in both newspapers skyrocketed from about eight in 1994 to more than 300 in 1999, according to wire reports.

About half the ads also promoted bars, clubs and entertainment events in what researchers say is an increasingly popular new trend in using bars and nightclubs as "promotional venues" for tobacco.

The study appeared in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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