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Today's Health Highlights: Oct. 1, 2001

Is U.S. Ready for Bioterrorism Attack? Painkiller Tougher to Get for Those Who Need It Border Crackdown Bad News for Drug Smugglers

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

Preparing to Combat a Bioterrorism Attack

The United States is ready to handle any kind of bioterrorism attack, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, says.

Interviewed on CBS' "60 Minutes" last night, Thompson said: "We've got to make sure that people understand that they're safe. And that we're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack,'' the Associated Press reports.

But many Americans have doubts about the nation's ability to repel such an attack. A new Newsweek magazine poll found that 46 percent of Americans say they aren't confident that national and local governments are ready to deal with a biochemical weapons attack.

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Painkiller Tougher to Get for Those Who Need It

OxyContin is a powerful prescription-only narcotic painkiller that has been a godsend for those suffering from the chronic pain of illnesses ranging from cancer to degenerative spinal disease. But it's also proved popular with drug addicts who crave its heroin-like high.

That abuse, coupled with increased scrutiny by legislators and law-enforcement agencies, has made many doctors and pharmacists increasingly reluctant to prescribe the drug, the Associated Press reports. And patients who say they've benefited greatly from the drug are now scrambling to find physicians willing to write them a prescription.

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Border Crackdown Bad News for Drug Smugglers

Heightened security at U.S. borders appears to be scaring away drug smugglers. And that raises the possibility of a substantial reduction in drug-related problems, health experts say. The reason: Higher prices for everything from marijuana to cocaine and heroin as supplies dwindle, HealthDay reports.

Security at the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada was stepped up to its highest level on Sept. 11 after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since then, drug seizures have fallen dramatically.

From Sept. 11-23, U.S. Customs seized about 2 tons of drugs at Southern California border crossings, compared to almost 15 tons during the same period in 2000. Across the entire Southwest -- from California to Texas -- the amount of drugs seized during that period dropped from 22 tons in 2000 to fewer than 4.5 tons this year.

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Many Food Products Don't ID Allergens

Food allergies can be life-threatening, and new research shows people can't always trust the label when they pluck packaged products from store shelves, HealthDay reports.

After analyzing 221 phone calls to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network over 24 months, researchers at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute in New York City found 68 percent of the callers had come across inadequate labels on food products. Because more than 6 million Americans have potentially fatal food allergies, the results were particularly troubling, the researchers say.

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Walking for Safety

Millions of parents, children and community leaders in the United States and 19 other countries will walk to school together tomorrow to promote pedestrian safety and physical fitness.

This will be the fifth annual "Walk to School Day." Last year, about 400,000 Americans in 47 states and more than 2 million people in nine countries participated in the event, HealthDay reports.

Promoting physical fitness is an important part of the event. It's also a way for parents and community leaders to teach their children street safety and see what potential hazards children face when walking to school. Those include streets without sidewalks, sidewalks that need repairs, dangerous road crossings, or speeding drivers.

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Breast Cancer Stamp Gets Vote of Confidence

The U.S. Senate has taken the first step toward extending the life of the Breast Cancer Research stamp beyond next summer by voting to continue its sale for another six years, until July 2008, HealthDay reports.

The House of Representatives is expected to OK the extension as well, thus ensuring continued sale of the stamp, which costs 40 cents instead of the 34-cent cost of a regular, first-class stamp.

Three hundred million breast cancer stamps have been sold since the stamp was introduced in July 1998. The sales have generated $22 million in research money.

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