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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 27, 2001

Influenza Outbreak Could Still Kill Millions, Experts Say Report: Senate in No Rush to Ban Cloning Delaying HIV Drugs May Be All Right for Some 'Light' Cigarettes Take a Heavy Toll Drug May Slow Progression of Type I Diabetes Investigators Wait to Open Leahy Anthrax Letter FDA Warns On Fla. Urologist's Treatment

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

Flu Still a Global Threat, Experts Warn

The threat of a deadly global influenza outbreak, even one unleashed by bioterrorists, should not be overlooked, disease specialists said today.

Flu still has the potential to become a pandemic, the scientists said at a conference sponsored by the European Union. They called for worldwide efforts to counter the possibility, the Associated Press reported.

Professor Albert Osterhaus, director of the Dutch Influenza Center, said the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-1919 killed up to 40 million people worldwide. Flu outbreaks in 1957-58 and 1968-1969 killed more than 1 million people each time, he said.

Given that the most virulent strains of flu hit about every 30 years, on average, scientists are expecting another major outbreak soon, the AP said.

Terrorists could trigger an influenza outbreak, said Dr. Robert Webster, virologist at St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. "Any technologist in the world can now generate any influenza virus they wish, like the one in 1919. If the wrong people use this technology, they can determine when a pandemic will start,'' he said.

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Report: Senate in No Rush to Ban Cloning

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has no plans to push for legislation banning human cloning, despite the view of some lawmakers that a federal law is needed soon to stop fast-moving research, according to the Associated Press.

"A lot of senators want time to think through all the medical and scientific issues involved," Daschle spokesman Doug Hattaway said yesterday.

The House of Representatives passed a ban on human cloning in July; a similar measure was raised in the Senate this month, but a showdown was avoided after leaders promised extensive hearings next spring, the AP reported.

The issue of human cloning took on added urgency with the weekend announcement by a Massachusetts company that its scientists had cloned a human embryo for the first time. The company, Advanced Cell Technology, said that it had no plans to actually create human clones, but that it hopes to develop genetically compatible replacement cells for patients with a range of illnesses, the AP said.

The company's announcement of the cloning of a six-cell embryo triggered sharp criticism from a variety of corners, from lawmakers and President Bush to religious leaders -- including the Vatican -- and abortion opponents.

However, 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 Sunday on two Internet sites, lacked any significant details, including what cells the company scientists grew from the cloned embryo, the AP reported.

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Delaying HIV Drugs May Be All Right for Some

Asymptomatic HIV patients can safely hold off taking AIDS drugs longer than previously thought, two new studies suggest, the Associated Press reported today.

Recent guidelines stated that the antiretroviral drugs could be started when levels of disease-fighting white blood cells, called CD4 cells, dropped to 350 per cubic millimeter instead of the previously recommended 500.

The new studies suggest the drugs can still be effective if started when a patient's CD4 count is even lower -- at least 200. That's true even if there are high levels of the HIV virus circulating in the bloodstream. The studies, published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association, found that for many patients, delaying treatment does no harm, the AP said.

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'Light' Cigarettes Take Heavy Toll

Smokers who think lightening up on tar and nicotine can spare them cigarettes' hazards are still in the dark, a new government report says.

The National Cancer Institute says that although "light" cigarettes may skimp on harmful tar, smokers puff harder, smoke more and take other steps to make sure they get their nicotine fix, HealthDay reported today.

As a result, health officials said, smokers' risk of lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments associated with smoking is no lower than if they smoke high-test tobacco.

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Drug May Slow Progression of Type I Diabetes

Israeli scientists say they've found a drug that may stop the progression of Type I diabetes by protecting insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, HealthDay reported today.

Researchers at Peptor, a biochemical company in Rehovot, Israel, have developed a protein that blocks the destruction of B-cells. Type I diabetes occurs when these insulin-producing cells are progressively destroyed by the patient's own immune system.

Stopping the destruction of the cells seems to control a patient's need for insulin injections, and if the therapy is started early enough, the researchers suspect it could even prevent the illness.

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Investigators Wait to Open Leahy Anthrax Letter

The highly toxic anthrax letter sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., may not be opened for several more days, even though it was discovered about a week and a half ago, CNN reported, citing anonymous sources.

FBI, military and civilian scientists are trying to figure out the best way to handle the anthrax inside the letter because "we only have a finite amount and want to preserve what we have as best we can," a source told CNN.

"I think that the law enforcement people want to be really careful about opening it, one, so they don't kill somebody, but secondly, so they're able to retain the evidence that might be there," Leahy said. "This may be one of the better clues that we have, and I'm in no hurry for them to get it opened if it will help them get more clues."

Leahy said 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 Capitol Hill mail that was quarantined following the discovery of an anthrax-tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Oct. 15, the Associated Press reported.

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FDA Warns on Fla. Urologist's Treatments

The government is investigating whether a Florida urologist gave diluted doses of the anti-cancer drug Lupron to dozens of patients, the Associated Press reported.

The Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning today urging all men treated for prostate cancer by Dr. Victor Souaid, of Pompano Beach, Fla., to see another doctor immediately for blood tests to determine whether their treatment was adequate.

Souaid has not been charged with any crime, said FDA special agent Doug Fabel, who is leading the investigation. Today's public announcement, highly unusual in the midst of a criminal investigation, was made because investigators fear they might have missed other patients, Fabel said.

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