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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 16, 2001

Fifth West Nile Death Confirmed Health Officials I.D. Those Who Need Anthrax Antibiotics New Guidelines for Awarding Livers for Transplants Gout Drug Aids Heart Patients Gene Therapy Rejuvenates Damaged Hearts Solvent Unnerving Some Car Mechanics

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

Fifth West Nile Death Confirmed

A 44-year-old man has become the first person in Alabama to die from the West Nile virus, state health officials said today, according to the Associated Press.

The man, who was not identified, died Oct. 30 after becoming infected in late August, state veterinarian Bill Johnston said.

The man is the fifth person in the nation to die from the mosquito-borne virus this year, following a 70-year-old man in Massachusetts, a 45-year-old man in New Jersey, a 71-year-old woman in Georgia and a Connecticut woman in her 90s.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn't confirm the Alabama case until yesterday because of a backlog caused by the anthrax investigation, Johnston said.

West Nile, first detected in the Western Hemisphere in 1999, is spread by mosquitoes that become infected when they feed on infected birds. It causes flu-like symptoms in some cases, and poses the greatest threat to the elderly or those with chronic health problems. A total of 42 human cases have been reported in seven eastern and southern states this year.

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CDC Lists Those in Need of Anthrax Therapy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a list of six locations where anthrax was discovered and where people who spent time might have been vulnerable to infection, HealthDay reported yesterday.

Health officials say anyone who was potentially exposed to anthrax spores at the six sites -- in New York City, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Florida -- within a two-month window should be taking 60-day courses of antibiotics, chiefly Cipro, doxycycline or penicillin, which have been approved to treat the disease. The CDC recently reported that 32,000 Americans had at least briefly begun preventive doses of the anti-anthrax medications, although only about 5,000 are believed to still be taking the long-term regimen.

The CDC says anyone who spent an hour or more at the Boca Raton, Fla., offices of American Media Inc. -- where the anthrax outbreak first surfaced -- between Aug. 1 and Oct. 6 should be taking antibiotics as a precaution.

In New York City, health officials say anthrax antibiotics should be taken by any mail workers stationed on the second and third floors of the Morgan Central Postal Facility.

In Hamilton Township, N.J., anthrax drugs are recommended for all employees and visitors who were in restricted areas of the Route 130 Processing and Distribution Center between Sept. 18 and Oct. 18. Tainted letters passed through this postal building.

The CDC recommendations also cover two locations in Washington, D.C.: The Senate's Hart office building, where Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who received an anthrax-laced letter, works. Also, the Brentwood Road postal facility, where one worker died from inhalation anthrax.

The CDC also says all mail room workers and business visitors to the State Department's Annex 32 mail facility, in Sterling, Va., between Oct. 12 and Oct. 22, should take preventive antibiotics.

As of yesterday, the CDC had identified 17 confirmed and five suspected cases of anthrax, including four deaths. Ten of the cases involve the inhaled form of the infection, the most serious variety and the one blamed for all the fatalities. The remaining cases are confirmed -- or apparent -- skin anthrax.

Also yesterday, Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., unveiled a $3.2 billion bioterrorism spending package, the Associated Press reported.

The money would go for stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics, increasing food inspections, adding money to the CDC budget, and helping state and local governments plan for bioterrorism.

Kennedy, who chairs the Senate health committee, said the anthrax attacks showed that more needs to be done to combat bioterrorism.

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New Guidelines for Awarding Livers for Transplants

Sophisticated medical criteria will be used to rank patients waiting for donated livers under a new system approved unanimously by the nation's transplant network, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

The new system replaces one that relied heavily on how long a patient had been on a waiting list, although it does not break down the geographic boundaries that allow much shorter waits in some parts of the country.

The new system gives each patient a score based on three lab tests and is expected to better predict which patients will die without transplants, AP said.

"It's a much more objective way to rank patients," said Dr. Richard Freeman, a liver surgeon at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who chairs the liver committee for the United Network for Organ Sharing.

The new system can't take effect until the network's computers are reprogrammed, probably in February, the AP said.

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Gout Drug Aids Heart Patients

A gout drug gives wheezing heart muscles a much-needed tune-up and could one day be a treatment for patients with heart failure, new research says, according to a HealthDay report.

Scientists have found that the drug, allopurinol, can make heart muscles run better while using less energy when it's infused directly into the organ's blood supply. Experts caution, however, that with only nine patients, the study is quite small, and that infusing the heart isn't an appropriate way to treat large numbers of people.

But, they add, the results are encouraging enough to warrant additional research into the drug as a possible therapy for heart failure, a disease with no cure that strikes 550,000 Americans a year.

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Gene Therapy Rejuvenates Damaged Hearts

New research shows that a gene from a naturally occurring hormone called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), when injected directly into damaged heart muscle, improved the conditions of patients who were in the final stages of heart disease, HealthDay reported yesterday.

At the end of two separate studies, a majority of the patients reported less angina or chest pain and increased physical function, the researchers say. Both reports, one that followed heart patients for one year and another that tracked them for two years, were presented recently at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

Although the results are promising, cardiologists emphasize that the next step needs to be a larger, randomized trial using a control group that doesn't receive the gene therapy.

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Solvent Unnerving Some Car Mechanics

Repeated exposure to a chemical found in some car maintenance products can cause nerve problems, including numbness in the hands, feet and forearms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday, the Associated Press reported.

In extreme cases, the chemical solvent n-hexane, found in some products used to clean and de-grease engines, can lead to loss of motor skills, the CDC said.

The warning follows a study by health officials in California who found that three mechanics reported the numbness and tingling after using some products with n-hexane. The nerve condition typically improves when the exposure to n-hexane stops, the AP said.

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