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Today's Health Highlights: Oct. 25, 2001

Letter to Daschle Termed a 'Weapon' Test Could Spare Some From Chemotherapy New Clue for Family Planning?

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

Anthrax Letter Labeled a 'Weapon'

The anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office 10 days ago was clearly intended as a "weapon" to do harm, the U.S. Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, said today at a press conference.

"It is clear that the terrorists intended to use this anthrax as a weapon," he said.

Ridge also confirmed that tests on anthrax spores from letters mailed to Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York City were of the same genetic strain, but the spores sent to The New York Post were more coarse, according to CNN.

Earlier today, The New York Times, quoting scientific experts both inside and outside of government, said the letter sent to Daschle's office contained an advanced, highly refined powder version of anthrax. Some federal officials had previously described the anthrax as a primitive form of the germ, suggesting it did not pose a major health threat.

But the three scientists interviewed by The Times -- all of whom are well versed in germ weapons and have knowledge of the federal investigation -- said the powder was "high-grade and in theory capable of inflicting wide casualties," the paper said.

Twenty-nine people in or near Daschle's office were exposed to the germ, although none of them became sick. However, four workers at the Brentwood Road mail processing plant in Northeast Washington, D.C., which would have processed the Daschle letter, became infected with the virulent inhalation anthrax. Two have since died and the other two are still being treated at a suburban Maryland hospital.

Federal investigators said the anthrax in the Daschle letter was so finely milled, the sealed envelope could have leaked anthrax in transit from New Jersey, where it was mailed, and infected postal workers there and in the Washington mail sorting plant, according to The Times.

As a precaution, the Postal Service is preparing to issue masks and gloves for its 800,000 employees and is testing ways to sterilize the nation's mail, the Associated Press reported.

Postmaster General John Potter admitted yesterday that he could not guarantee that the mail being delivered to Americans is safe. But, the risks of anthrax contamination are slight and there was no need to shut down the postal system, he said.

"We're asking people to handle mail very carefully," Potter said. "People have to be aware of everything in their day-to-day life, and certainly, mail in our system is threatened right now. People should do things that are safe, and when they handle mail they should wash their hands."

Also today, it was revealed that a U.S. State Department mailroom employee had tested positive for anthrax and is hospitalized. The male employee worked at a facility in Sterling, Va., which received all of its mail from the Brentwood distribution center, according to CNN.

On other fronts, a second employee at The New York Post -- a mailroom worker -- has been diagnosed with the easily treated skin form of anthrax.

And a spokesman for Holy Cross Hospital in suburban Maryland said an unidentified journalist who had been in the Hart Office Building -- the site of Daschle's office -- was being treated for suspicious symptoms of inhalation anthrax, CNN reported. If confirmed to be inhalation anthrax, she would be the first person to contract that form of the disease inside the Capitol complex.

Yesterday, U.S. officials reached agreement on a lower price for the antibiotic Cipro, the most popular anti-anthrax drug.

Bayer Corp., which makes the drug, agreed to sell the federal government 100 million pills at 95 cents each. That's a savings of $95 million from Bayer's original price, according to the AP, quoting the Department of Health and Human Services.

To date, there have been 32 cases of anthrax exposure, and 13 confirmed anthrax infections -- seven cutaneous and six inhaled -- involving postal workers and news media employees, according to CNN. Three of the inhalation victims have died.

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Test Could Spare Some From Chemotherapy

A new genetic test on breast tumors could spare thousands of women every year from post-operative chemotherapy, and help tailor treatment for those who need it, according to the Associated Press.

Up to 30 percent of women with early breast cancer will have a recurrence within five years. But, because doctors can't identify those most at risk, they give chemotherapy in almost every case.

The new screening method could cut the proportion of women given chemotherapy unnecessarily from current levels of 90 percent in the United States and 70 percent in Europe to 27 percent overall, according to research presented yesterday at a conference of the European Federation of Cancer Societies.

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A New Clue for Family Planning?

American and Italian researchers say a new method of identifying the fertile days in a woman's menstrual cycle could prove useful in developing countries, where customs, illiteracy and poor health care can make family planning a serious challenge, HealthDay reports.

The system, called the "TwoDay" method, requires that women note vaginal dampness or secretions that are unrelated to menstruation, intercourse or disease. According to the system, a woman is potentially fertile following two consecutive days of dampness and should avoid unprotected intercourse if she doesn't want to get pregnant.

A study of the method appears in the Oct. 26 issue of the journal Human Reproduction.

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Infant Back-Sleeping Mode Has Slight Drawback

Babies who sleep on their backs seem to take longer to learn how to lift and control their heads, a new study contends.

But that's OK, child health experts say, because the benefits of back-sleeping -- namely, a significant cut in the risk of sudden, unexplained death -- far outweigh what they consider short-term coordination losses, HealthDay reported.

Baby deaths from sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, also called crib death, have dropped more than 50 percent in the decade since the American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal government launched a nationwide campaign to encourage parents to place babies on their backs at nap time and nighttime, according to Judith Jacobson, executive vice president of the SIDS Alliance.

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