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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 26, 2001

U.S. Unveils Smallpox Bioterrorism Battle Plan Bush Calls Cloning of Human Embryos 'Morally Wrong' 3 Genes Linked to Heart Disease Flu Vaccine Safe for Asthmatics Leahy: Anthrax Letter Could Have Killed 100,000 People

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

CDC Releases Smallpox Bioterrorism Strategy

U.S. health officials released today their plan to combat smallpox if the deadly virus were to be used in a bioterrorist attack. The plan, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls for immediate vaccinations of people close to any patient who contracts the highly contagious disease, the Associated Press reported.

"Disease detectives" would retrace the victim's every move, searching for and vaccinating all those who may have been infected. The vaccination is still effective several days after the recipient has been exposed to smallpox, the AP said.

However, people should not be forced to receive the vaccination, said Dr. D.A. Henderson, the top bioterrorism official at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"This really did not work well at all,'' said Henderson, who led the worldwide campaign that succeeded in eradicating smallpox from the globe in 1980. "Once you began compelling people and people began to try to escape from being vaccinated, you lost the confidence of the people, and it became a really, often, a very difficult situation."

Smallpox hasn't been seen in the United States since 1949, but terrorism experts are worried that the virus could be obtained by terrorists and released into the civilian population, the AP said.

State and local officials are reviewing the plan, which is an update of a version first drafted in 1972, when doctors stopped routinely vaccinating Americans for smallpox, the news service reported.


Bush Denounces Report of Human Embryo Clones

President Bush today labeled as "morally wrong" a research company's claim to have cloned a human embryo for the first time, the Associated Press reported.

"We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it,'' Bush said.

Advanced Cell Technology Inc. of Massachusetts announced yesterday that its researchers had cloned a six-cell embryo in hopes of developing genetically compatible replacement cells for patients with a range of illnesses, according to the AP.

The Massachusetts company's lab procedure would be banned under cloning legislation passed earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.

The company's announcement unleashed protests from conservative religious and political leaders who see the reported breakthrough as a dangerous step toward human cloning, the AP said.

But scientists at Advanced Cell Technology stressed the technology would be used to produce cells to treat diseases, not to clone humans.

Meanwhile, several cloning experts, including a former member of Advanced Cell Technology's ethics board, dismissed the company's claim as "nothing but hype." They added that the company's findings, posted yesterday on two Internet sites, lacked any significant details, including what cells the company scientists grew from the cloned embryo, the AP reported.

The Advanced Cell scientists describe their work as preliminary. No experiment has yet produced coveted stem cells, master cells that can grow into all kinds of body tissues.


3 Genes Linked to Heart Disease

Scientists say they have found evidence linking three genes to premature heart disease, the Associated Press reported today. The finding could one day lead to a better screening procedure for families at risk, the researchers hope.

Using a new technique called "high throughput microarray genotyping" to sift through some 50,000 genes, the researchers found that three produce thrombospondin. The protein governs blood's ability to clot, a factor in heart disease, the AP said.

The study, published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Circulation, found that families with a variant of a gene called thrombospondin-4 were 89 percent more likely to have a premature heart attack compared with those who had a normal gene of the same type, the AP reported.


Flu Vaccine Safe for Asthmatics

Fear that the influenza vaccine might trigger an acute asthma episode, especially in children, is unfounded, say researchers involved in what they call the largest, most carefully controlled study ever done on the subject, HealthDay reported today.

The study compared symptoms in 2,032 asthma patients, ages 3 to 64, who were given either the vaccine or a placebo. The researchers found no adverse reactions, says a report in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"In every way we looked at the data, we found that the vaccine is safe," said Dr. Mario Castro, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and a member of the American Lung Association Asthma Clinical Research Centers, which did the study.


Leahy: Anthrax Letter Could Have Killed 100,000 People

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., says there was enough anthrax in the letter mailed to his Washington, D.C., office to kill more than 100,000 people.

The letter was found Nov. 16 in a collection of unopened mail sent to Capitol Hill and quarantined following the discovery of an anthrax-tainted letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Oct. 15, the Associated Press reported.

"We still haven't got the letter open," Leahy said yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press. "It is so powerful that they [investigators] are having difficulty figuring out how best to open it and preserve the evidence."

An FBI scientist said last week that there were billions of spores inside the letter, which was taped around the edges. "You could feel the powder inside," the microbiologist said, according to the AP. Eight thousand to 10,000 spores are enough to kill a human being.

Meanwhile, Daschle, appearing on Fox News Sunday, urged Americans to be "very skeptical about opening envelopes that aren't recognizable, that look suspicious. "We can't possibly protect every single one of our citizens from the possibility of another attack," he said.

Leahy and Daschle made their remarks the day after the burial of the latest anthrax victim, Ottilie Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Conn. Tests showed the anthrax that killed her was indistinguishable from the anthrax in the other cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CNN reported.

Investigators remain baffled as to how Lundgren, who rarely ventured from her home, came down with the rarest and most dangerous form of the disease. She had no apparent connection to the U.S. Postal Service, government offices or media outlets that have received or processed anthrax-laden letters, CNN said.

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland today told that investigators have hit a "dead end" because they've been unable to uncover any real clues in the Lundgren case. Tests of her home, her mail and the two mail centers that serve the small town of Oxford have turned up negative for anthrax.

Eighteen people have been infected since the anthrax-by-mail campaign began early last month; five have died, all from inhalation anthrax.

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