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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 17, 2001

NY Subway Clear of Anthrax, Says CDC Smallpox Virus To Stay On Hand in U.S., Says Gov't Fifth West Nile Death Confirmed 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:

No Anthrax on NY Subway, Say Early Findings

Early tests on the New York City subway system indicate that it's clear of anthrax, but officials today caution that the subway, by definition, is not a sterile environment and that final results of the subway tests will come sometime next week, according to a CNN report.

These tests are part of a weeks-long attempt to figure out how 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen, a Manhattan hospital worker, could have contracted -- and died from -- the disease.

The mail is also still getting its share of attention. Sterilizing mail to kill anthrax spores may take radiation doses so high that they will destroy ordinary medicines, according to an Associated Press interview yesterday with Food and Drug Administration physicist Orhan Suleiman. He is advising the Postal Service on irradiation.

But so far no one knows just what effect the 5.6 million rads of radiation, delivered by electron beam technology that is now being used on letters, will have on any medical substance. There's simply no data, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.

So far, only letters from government buildings and post offices, known to be anthrax tainted, are being irradiated. Packages that would hold medicines have not yet been put through the process.

In the meantime, another anthrax-containing letter, this time addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, was found yesterday evening among 250 barrels of letters impounded after the initial scare, reports The New York Times. The letter was postmarked Oct. 9 in Trenton, N.J., says the FBI. It appears to be almost a carbon copy of the anthrax-containing letters sent to Senator Tom Daschle, the majority leader, and NBC news and The New York Post.

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Keep Smallpox in Stock, Orders Bush Admin

The debate over whether the U.S. will destroy its stock of smallpox virus is now settled: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will keep it hidden but on hand in case it is needed to fend off a bioterrorist attack, according to a report from CNN.

If someone can make it into a weapon, we may need more new vaccines to deal with it, said one official. And the way to research drugs is by using the live virus.

The U.S. and Russia are the only two nations with a known stockpile of the deadly virus, but some experts are concerned that some of Russia's stock may have leaked into nations like Iraq and into terrorists' hands.

The Clinton administration was leaning toward destroying the virus. Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide in the '70s by the World Health Organization, and it was felt keeping such a virus on hand was unnecessary.

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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 yesterday, 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.

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Gout Drug Aids Heart Patients

A gout drug gives straining 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.

At the end of two separate studies, most of the patients reported less chest pain and greater 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, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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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