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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 13, 2001

State Dep't. Anthrax Spores Means Another Letter Is Out There: Officials New Pump a Lifesaver for Heart Failure Victims Ritalin's Effects May Last Longer Than Thought Genetic Flaws Involved in Adult-Onset Parkinson's

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

State Dep't. Anthrax Tests Point to Undiscovered Letter

Anthrax contamination turned up in eight of 55 tests taken from a State Department remote mail facility in Virginia, and that's a strong indication that a spore-laden letter remains to be found, officials reported today.

Dr. Steven Ostroff, an anthrax expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that "based on the bulk of the evidence'' available, the agency believes there's a tainted letter yet to be discovered in the State Department system, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, CNN reported, in the first known case of anthrax contamination at a nongovernmental facility in the Washington area, eight mail facilities on the campus of Howard University underwent a cleanup process today after the school's main mailroom tested positive for trace amounts of anthrax.

University spokeswoman Sheila Harvey says the mail sorting facilities were closed, and cleanup by a private contractor was scheduled to be completed today. Separate follow-up testing of those mailrooms is also ongoing, and results are expected back with the next 72 hours, Harvey said. The rest of the campus remains open

Harvey said one of 54 environmental samples at Howard tested positive over the weekend. None of the 300 mail-handling workers at Howard was believed to be at risk, since they had been on preventive antibiotics since October 21, CNN said.

The university gets its mail directly from Washington's Brentwood Road mail sorting facility, which was closed because of anthrax contamination from at least one letter was sent to the Capitol Hill office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

In the State Department also, a mail handler became ill with inhalation anthrax last month in what officials speculated resulted from cross-contamination with the letter mailed to Daschle.

Officials have located three tainted letters nationwide, one each sent to Daschle, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, and The New York Post. They also theorize that an as-yet undiscovered letter was mailed to a Florida tabloid publishing company where two employees were stricken with the disease, one fatally.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that eight samples out of 55 that were collected from the agency's mail facility in Sterling, Va., tested positive for anthrax. He said two of the samples were obtained from two separate mail sorters and the six others from a third sorter.

Boucher said the results are important because they support the theory that a letter like the one sent to Daschle has moved through the mail system.

"We are now proceeding to look at all the mail that we had held up, frozen, sealed off in mailrooms in this building, in annexes and around the world,'' he said, according to the AP story.

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New Heart Pump Could Save Countless Lives

A mechanical pump that's implanted to assist people suffering from heart failure can significantly prolong their lives, The New York Times reported today, citing what it called a "landmark" study.

The pump, known as a VAD, for ventricular assist device, is "superior to the most potent drugs for heart failure and may eventually prevent the deaths of up to 100,000 Americans each year," The Times said of the study's findings, presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Anaheim, Calif.

"Heart failure" refers to a specific condition in which the heart grows so weak it can't pump properly. The condition is often caused by coronary artery disease, heart attacks or high blood pressure, The Times said.

About five million Americans live with varying degrees of heart failure, and more than a half-million develop the condition each year. Half of those who receive the diagnosis die within five years, despite advances in drug therapy. However, the risk of death for those in the study was 48 percent lower among patients who received the device than among those receiving the most potent cardiac drugs, The Times said.

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Ritalin May Last Longer Than Thought

The effects of Ritalin, a drug commonly prescribed for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, may last longer than expected, according to HealthDay.

Contrary to current belief that Ritalin has only short-term effects, new research indicates that the drug, known generically as methylphenidate, may affect brain function after a dose has worn off. The researchers, whose findings stem from studies with rats, say they do not yet know how great the effect is or for how long it lasts.

However, the makers of Ritalin say that long-term studies of children taking the drug have shown no long-term health problems.

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Genetic Link to Adult-Onset Parkinson's Found

Researchers say they now have convincing evidence that genetic flaws are involved in the most common form of Parkinson's disease that develops relatively late in life, HealthDay reports.

While specific genes previously have been linked to the relatively rare form of Parkinson's disease that strikes young people, the prevailing belief has been that the adult-onset form, which affects about 1 million Americans, is caused by as yet unidentified environmental factors.

Now researchers at Duke University Medical Center say a study of 174 families across the United States has established a link between several genes and a susceptibility to late-onset Parkinson's. "What we have shown is that there is an underlying genetic susceptibility, but it's not that there is no environmental component. You have to have both," says lead study author Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, co-director of the Duke Center for Human Genetics. Findings appear in the Nov. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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