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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 29, 2001

Scientists to Use Robot to Open Leahy Anthrax Letter California University to Study Medical Marijuana Drinking and 'Speeding' Don't Mix Man Dies During Artificial Heart Operation Bush Administration to Buy More Smallpox Vaccine Those at Risk of HIV Not Tested Syphilis Cases Continue to Fall in U.S. A Smile Can Save Your Life: Study

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

Robot to Open Leahy Anthrax Letter

Hoping to preserve forensic evidence that might identify the source of the anthrax-by-mail attacks, government scientists will use a small robot to open a highly suspicious letter sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy's Washington, D.C., office, USA TODAY reported today, quoting a senior law enforcement official.

The testing could begin as early as today, although CNN, quoting unidentified sources, said FBI scientists may not start the testing until tomorrow.

The letter to Leahy was found two weeks ago in a search of mail quarantined from Capitol Hill following the discovery of an anthrax-laden letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The Leahy letter is believed to contain billions of potentially deadly anthrax spores; Leahy said Sunday there were enough to kill 100,000 people.

Authorities think the heavily taped envelope may hold their last, best hope for an investigative breakthrough in the anthrax terrorism campaign. Officials said the process of opening the letter with a robot is designed to minimize the "loss of the highly fragile bacteria and preserve any forensic evidence -- fingerprints, hair and DNA -- on the envelope," USA TODAY said.

The Leahy letter is virtually identical to those sent to Daschle and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw.

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


California University to Study Medical Marijuana

The University of California at San Diego has gotten final federal approval for a study on medical marijuana.

Two professors of neurology at the school's medical center will study marijuana's effects on patients with multiple sclerosis and those who suffer from neuropathy, or nerve pain, associated with AIDS, the Associated Press reported today.

The studies will be the first by the university's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, a program created by the state Legislature in 1999. Since California became the first state to approve medical marijuana in 1996, six other states have followed suit. Federal law, however, prohibits the sale of marijuana for medical uses.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration gave final approval to the San Diego project yesterday, saying it hoped to introduce some science into what has been an emotionally charged debate. The agency maintains that past studies have shown no medical benefit from smoking marijuana, the AP said.


Drinking and 'Speeding' Don't Mix

The latest legal high in colleges and in clubs is a mix of supercharged energy drinks and hard liquor. Although the combination isn't illegal, it has experts worried that swilling a drink that is both heavily stimulating and depressing at the same time is a recipe for disaster, HealthDay reported today.

Mixing energy drinks like Red Bull and Venom with liquors like vodka is most popular among the under-30 crowd. There's no hard research on the subject, and so far, no deaths or medical emergencies have been attributed to the new brews, but experts say that may be just a matter of time.

College bars around the country are advertising "Red Bull Nights" (read: Red Bull and vodka).


Man Dies During Artificial Heart Operation

An unidentified man suffering from chronic heart failure has died from massive bleeding during an operation to implant a self-contained mechanical heart, the Associated Press reported today.

Doctors performing the surgery at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston on Tuesday spent 20 hours trying to stem the bleeding. The artificial heart performed well during the operation, officials said yesterday.

The revolutionary AbioCor heart, a battery-operated, plastic-and-titanium device, has been implanted in five patients since July. All have done well, although the first recipient suffered a stroke earlier this month, the AP said.


Bush Administration to Buy More Smallpox Vaccine

The U.S. government agreed yesterday to buy 155 million doses of smallpox vaccine from a British firm, in case terrorists try to use the deadly virus as a weapon, the Associated Press reported.

The contract with Acambis Inc. will bring the nation's stockpile to 286 million doses of the vaccine by the end of next year, enough for every American should bioterrorists ever attack with the all-but-extinct virus, the AP said.


Those at Risk of HIV Not Tested

Only about half the people at highest risk for HIV have been tested for the virus that causes AIDS, suggesting U.S. infection rates could be higher than health experts thought, government researchers reported today.

Just 54 percent of people who reported being at high or medium risk -- including intravenous drug users and gay men -- said they had been tested for HIV, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, according to the Associated Press.

The study results underscore a problem that has concerned health officials for years: A substantial segment of people with HIV don't even know they have it and are probably spreading the infection.

The study, released in advance of World AIDS Day, which is Saturday, cited lack of access to testing centers and a perceived lack of confidentiality as reasons some people don't get tested, the AP said.


Syphilis Cases Continue to Fall in U.S.

Syphilis, the killer disease that has spread devastation through the centuries, is a step closer to becoming history itself. The number of cases in the United States fell to the lowest level ever in 2000, according to figures released yesterday, and federal officials think they're on track toward vanquishing the disease forever, according to HealthDay.

All of the 5,979 reported syphilis cases last year were in just 20 percent of the country's counties, the CDC figures show.

There are some hitches, however. Although syphilis rates are dipping among heterosexuals, they appear to be rising among gay men. And syphilis continues to disproportionately affect poor African-Americans, who are 21 times more likely to get the disease than whites.


A Smile Can Save Your Life: Study

Looking on the bright side may give you more than a sunny disposition. It also may extend your life, a HealthDay story reported.

Harvard University researchers found that an optimistic outlook can cut your risk of heart disease almost 50 percent.

Other studies have linked heart disease to negative emotions and stress, but "this is the first study to link optimism with the onset of heart disease," said lead study author Laura Kubzansky, assistant professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

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