Today's Health Highlights: Oct. 21, 2001

D.C. Postal Worker Has Deadliest Form of 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:

D.C. Postal Worker in Serious Condition With Inhaled Anthrax

A District of Columbia postal worker was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax today, the same deadly form of the disease that killed a Florida photo editor three weeks ago.

According to the Associated Press, the unidentified man was in serious condition at a hospital in Virginia.

Washington health officials said the unidentified man worked in the city's central mail handling facility, which processed a contaminated letter sent to the Senate majority leader, and had been hospitalized Friday in Virginia with an infection and flu-like symptoms. The test results confirming that he had contracted the deadliest form of the disease came back today.

Evidence of anthrax was also found, for the first time, in a U.S. House of Representatives office building that processes mail for lawmakers, congressional officials said Saturday, 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 AP reported.

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 other people diagnosed with anthrax so far, two of them -- both employees of a Florida-based publisher of supermarket tabloids -- were found to have inhaled anthrax. The photo editor died Oct. 5; his co-worker hospitalized in Miami but is "doing great," according to his stepdaughter.

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. Another, a mail sorter at a Hamilton, N.J., postal facility, was in stable condition in a hospital and expected to recover.

And CNN reported that a Trenton, N.J., letter carrier has also tested positive for skin anthrax.

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.

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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 bacteria of all kinds will build up resistance to the drug, rendering it useless for the future.

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Olympics Create a Score of Health Concerns

Utah is bracing for an invasion of its own in February -- the 100,000 or so people a day expected to compete in, work at and attend the Winter Olympics, according to a HealthDay report.

To meet the medical needs of elite athletes -- and not-so-elite spectators -- the state has recruited a regional health care group, Intermountain Health Care, and people from a state university to set up clinics in 36 places to handle problems whether they be on the speed skating rink or the luge runs in the mountains.

About 2,000 medical people are volunteering at the Games.

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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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