Today's Health Highlights: Oct. 20, 2001

U.S. House Complex Has Anthrax Anthrax Antibiotic Stopped at the Border Medical Pot Gets Netherlands Nod

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

Anthrax Found in U.S. House Complex

Evidence of anthrax was found, for the first time, in a U.S. House of Representatives office building that processes mail for lawmakers, congressional officials said yesterday, as hazardous materials teams methodically worked their way across Capitol Hill.

The potentially deadly bacteria was discovered in a bundling machine used to process mail for lawmakers in the Ford Office Building, a few blocks from the Capitol, the Associated Press reported.

And Washington health officials said a man who works in the city's central mail handling facility, which processed a contaminated letter sent to the Senate majority leader, was hospitalized with an infection and flu-like symptoms that suggest anthrax, though doctors do not yet know if he has the disease. The man, whose name was not released, was in a Virginia hospital. Test results were expected today.

The disclosures came as investigators interviewed Trenton, N.J., residents for any information about two anthrax-laced letters that were sent to New York and Washington, D.C., with Trenton postmarks. FBI agents and postal inspectors combed the route of a Trenton letter carrier who contracted anthrax and also seized several Postal Service collection boxes.

Officials have already determined that the anthrax strains discovered in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Florida were "indistinguishable," according to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, AP reports.

"It does appear that it may have come from the same batch," Ridge said Friday, adding that the anthrax was also "not weaponized," meaning it hadn't been altered to make it spread more easily through the air.

Of the eight people diagnosed with anthrax so far, two -- both employees of a Florida-based publisher of supermarket tabloids -- were found to have the most dangerous form of the disease, inhaled anthrax. One died Oct. 5; the other remains hospitalized in Miami.

The remaining victims, including the 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer in New York City, have skin anthrax, which is easily treated with antibiotics like Cipro. One of the newest victims -- an assistant to the editorial page editor of The New York Post newspaper-- is already back at work. And the other, a mail sorter at a Hamilton, N.J., postal facility, was in stable condition in a hospital and expected to recover, the AP reported.

The largest anthrax exposure occurred in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's Washington, D.C., office with the arrival of the anthrax-tainted letter earlier this week. Originally, 31 people were thought to have been exposed to the disease. But subsequent tests revealed that three of those people had not been exposed, the AP reports.

Health officials have stressed that not everyone exposed to the germ becomes infected. The greater the number of anthrax spores involved, the greater the likelihood of infection, particularly if the spores are airborne, officials said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Sen. Bill Frist said officials will decide today whether to reopen Senate office buildings tomorrow, the AP reports. "We have to wait that long because we don't have enough data" on how safe the buildings are, the Tennessee Republican said.

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Anthrax Antibiotic Stopped at the Border

If you've ordered the antibiotic Cipro from a site on the Internet, bypassing your doctor and thinking the drug will keep you safe from anthrax, you may have a long wait. The Food and Drug Administration has ordered all private shipments of the drug stopped at the border, a move meant to stem the flow of illegal sales.

Since the anthrax scare, dozens of Web sites have sprung up that promise to sell you the prescription-only Cipro without seeing your doctor and without a prescription, a practice that is illegal, according to an Associated Press article. Not only that, but health officials worry that some of the drug sold may be fake.

The hazards of taking Cipro when you don't need it: side effects that could be dangerous and the rising fear that the bacteria of all kinds will build up resistance to the drug, rendering it useless for the future.

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Medical Pot Gets Netherlands Nod

Cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis sufferers have a new friend in the government of the Netherlands -- medical marijuana has just been approved by its Cabinet, and Parliament is expected to vote soon on a proposal to cover its cost under the national health plan.

Although marijuana is technically illegal, officials turn a blind eye to its use in hundreds of "coffee shops" that openly offer it for about $4 a gram, according to a report in the Associated Press.

The government's reasoning was that it recognized that an increasing number of patients with diseases that cause chronic pain are using marijuana, long recognized for pain and nausea-alleviating qualities, to treat their symptoms.

Canada is the only country that allows medical patients licenses to grow and use marijuana, although several countries tolerate medical use. Nine states in the United States won't prosecute medical use under state law, but patients can still be charged under federal law.

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CDC Urges Docs to Watch for Bioterrorism Cases

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging doctors nationwide to watch for possible cases of smallpox, food poisoning and deadly viruses like Ebola in the wake of the recent anthrax mailings, the Associated Press reports.

In an unusual warning, the CDC recommended that doctors be alert for odd outbreaks among people who have attended the same public event. The warning, citing the terrorist attacks last month, said doctors should also watch for unusual "age distribution" in diseases, such as a chicken pox-like illness in adults, the AP says.

The agency also asked state health departments to come up with plans to teach health-care providers how to recognize unusual diseases that might be cases of bioterrorism.

The CDC added there's no evidence of any specific threat from germ or disease agents other than anthrax, the AP says.

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Canada to Override Bayer's Cipro Patent

Canadian health officials say they will order generic stockpiles of the anthrax antibiotic Cipro from a Canadian manufacturer, despite Bayer's patent on the drug, which runs out in late 2003, the Associated Press reports.

The decision to override the German drug company's patent angered Bayer officials, who said they were seeking talks with Canada's ministry of health. The company says it's capable of meeting all demand for the drug.

U.S. officials have said they also have the right to override Bayer's patent, but haven't done so.

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DNA-Based Anthrax Vaccine in the Works

A new anthrax vaccine that uses pieces of the bacteria's DNA seems to work -- at least in mice, say researchers at Ohio State University, HealthDay reports.

The vaccine has successfully protected mice against anthrax, according to a recently published study in Infection and Immunity. And the study's lead author, Darrell Galloway, an associate professor of microbiology at Ohio State, says the researchers have had success with

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