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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 21, 2001

Inhaled Anthrax Kills 94-Year-Old Conn. Woman Contraceptive Patch Wins FDA Nod CDC Probing Knee Surgery Deaths FDA OKs Controversial Gel, Reluctantly Menstrual Woes Linked to Diabetes Risk

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

Elderly Conn. Woman Dies of Anthrax

A 94-year-old woman who lived alone in rural Connecticut died today of inhalation anthrax, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced.

HealthDay reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just confirmed earlier today that the woman, Ottilie Lundgren of Oxford, had been infected with the rarest and most dangerous form of anthrax.

Lundgren had been undergoing treatment at Griffin Hospital in nearby Derby after she was admitted five days ago with what doctors at first thought was pneumonia, according to hospital officials.

Gov. John Rowland expressed puzzlement today that an elderly woman, living in a small mill town far from where other bioterrorism-related anthrax cases were reported, came down with the illness. "This is an extraordinary circumstance," he said, according to the HealthDay report.

"We have no reason to believe that Oxford, Connecticut, or this woman were a target," Rowland added. "We have never been a target of terrorism. I still don't believe we are."

Oxford, a town of 9,800 people, is located in Connecticut's Naugatuck River Valley, about 25 miles northwest of New Haven.

Thus far, no other Connecticut residents have been diagnosed with anthrax, and no one else has anthrax-like symptoms.

The governor said that the mail is the chief suspect so far in the Lundgren case. The elderly woman didn't "go out much," her trips were confined to church and the local hair salon, he added. "We're treating this as a criminal event," he added.

A large mail processing facility in Wallingford, Conn., and a smaller post office in Seymour, a town to the south of Oxford, both tested negative for anthrax traces, according to a U.S. Postal Service official. But Rowland said 1,500 postal workers in Wallingford and another 30 at the Seymour office would be given prophylactic antibiotics if they want.

Lundgren was the 11th person to be diagnosed with lung anthrax since the attacks started last month. Four other people -- a hospital worker, two postal workers, and a photo editor -- have died.

Nine of the 10 previous cases were traced to anthrax-tainted mail sent to high-profile politicians or media outlets in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Florida. However, the 10th fatality, a 61-year-old woman in New York City, remains a mystery -- the CDC says it found no traces of anthrax in her apartment or workplace, and tests of the subway she rode also turned up negative.

Meanwhile, the anthrax-laden letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy in Washington, D.C., contained billions of germ spores, the Associated Press reported today.

An FBI microbiologist in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were "easily billions of spores" in the Leahy letter. Scientists believe 8,000 to 10,000 spores are enough to infect a person with inhalation anthrax, the AP said.

An investigator who found the Leahy letter in a trash bag of unopened congressional mail last Friday could feel powder inside the envelope, the FBI microbiologist said.

Also today, Education Department officials in Washington reported that small amounts of anthrax were discovered in the agency's mail room, the AP reported. It's the latest evidence of spores spreading from the contaminated central postal facility that serves the nation's capital. Trace amounts of the bacteria were detected yesterday in the mail rooms of Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., but officials said the amounts were so minute they did not pose a health risk.

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Contraceptive Patch Wins FDA Nod

The Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved the sale of the world's first contraceptive patch, giving women an option considered as safe and effective as the pill but easier for some to use, the Associated Press reported.

Ortho-Evra emits through the skin low doses of the same hormones used in birth control pills, but requires women to remember to use it weekly instead of daily like a pill. But the FDA, in approving the matchbook-sized beige patch, warned that Ortho-Evra may not work as well for women who weigh more than 198 pounds.

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CDC Probing Knee Surgery Deaths

Health officials are calling on the nation's doctors to report any suspicious cases of joint surgery infection following the sudden and mysterious deaths of three Minnesota men who suffered catastrophic infections after elective knee surgery, according to HealthDay.

In a press conference today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is investigating a "few" potential cases of complications after joint surgery since Oct. 1, but has yet to confirm any additional patients.

The men, ages 23, 60 and 78, died earlier this month within one to four days of their operations at two hospitals. Surgery on two of the men was done in a St. Cloud hospital northwest of Minneapolis; the other operation was done at a hospital 70 miles away. Lab tests turned up the lethal bacteria Clostridium sordellii in the blood of the 23-year-old victim.

However, although the two other men had similar symptoms, including a steep drop in blood pressure and severe abdominal pain, investigators haven't been able to determine what kind of germ, if any, killed them.

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FDA OKs Controversial Gel, Reluctantly

The Food and Drug Administration made an unprecedented about-face yesterday, approving a gel that promises less internal scarring for women undergoing certain gynecologic surgeries, even though regulators originally deemed the product too risky, according to the Associated Press.

The FDA had initially rejected Lifecore Biomedical Inc.'s Intergel because studies showed that women given the gel during open pelvic surgery had only one fewer internal scar but almost twice the risk of infection as women given standard treatment.

Lifecore became the first company to test a new law ordering the FDA to allow appeals without making manufacturers go to court. Mediators ruled in September that the FDA had erred and should approve Intergel, and yesterday the agency did, the AP said.

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Menstrual Woes Linked to Diabetes Risk

Women who have irregular or very long menstrual cycles have a higher risk of developing diabetes, a study finds, according to HealthDay.

"Over an eight-year follow-up, the risk was twice as high, even after we adjusted for body mass and other factors," said Dr. Caren G. Solomon, an associate physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and leader of a team reporting the finding in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But she says women with such menstrual abnormalities needn't panic because the risk can be reduced markedly by lifestyle measures, including regular exercise and weight control.

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