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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 15, 2001

Government Considering Anthrax Shot for Civilians Gabon Ebola Outbreak Spreading Rapidly U.S. Government To Begin Marijuana Research Blood Feud Lands FDA, Red Cross in Court More Delays for Senate Anthrax Cleanup Study Finds Cholesterol Not Top Heart Attack Predictor

Saturday,December 15, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:

Government Considering Anthrax Shot for Civilians

The government may make the anthrax vaccine now used by the military available to postal workers and others considered at high risk of exposure, according to The New York Times.

Although Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services is not expected to make a decision until next week, the Defense Department is scheduled to turn over 220,000 doses of the vaccine to the health department. The Food and Drug Administration has granted permission for the vaccine to be used in an experimental treatment program.

The vaccine would be reserved for a group of about 3,000 people who may have been exposed to large amounts of the germ. Once in the body, anthrax spores turn into bacteria. Although antibiotics kill the bacteria, they do not affect the spores and officials worry that remaining spores could become harmful.

Any vaccine program would be considered experimental and would require special consent from the patients, emphasized Katherine Zoon, a Food and Drug Administration official.

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Gabon Ebola Outbreak Spreading Rapidly

The Red Cross said today that an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in northeast Gabon is spreading "rapidly and unpredictably," according to a report from Agence France-Presse.

Officials, struggling to contain the disease, now have the added task of trying to track down an infected woman who traveled into neighboring Congo.

Eleven people have already died from the deadly disease out of 14 confirmed cases.

Earlier this week, the U.S. government ordered its employees to leave the region and urged American citizens not to travel to the affected region.

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U.S. Government To Begin Marijuana Research

For the first time in two decades, the government will begin research on the medical uses of marijuana, according to The New York Times.

The experiments, set to begin next year, will investigate whether smoking the weed can help patients who have multiple sclerosis as well as AIDS patients who suffer pain in their hands and feet. A third experiment is expected to be approved soon.

The Drug Enforcement Agency issued the approvals on November 28. The research, funded by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research run by the University of California, will take place in California. As for supply: the researchers will use marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi under the auspices of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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FDA, Red Cross Headed to Court Over Blood Dispute

A federal judge has scheduled a Jan. 11 hearing on the Food and Drug Administration's effort to impose severe fines on the Red Cross for violations of blood safety rules, the Associated Press reported.

In court papers filed yesterday, the FDA charged that "persistent and serious violations" continue despite a 1993 federal court order mandating improvements in blood handling by the Red Cross, the AP said.

FDA lawyer Lawrence McDade said that while the nation's blood supply is safe, the goal is to eliminate all risks that can be eliminated.

The Red Cross said in a statement that it has spent more than $280 million to upgrade its blood operations to meet FDA requirements, and believes "the nation's blood supply has never been safer than it is today."

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More Delays for Senate Anthrax Cleanup

Cleanup of the Hart Senate Office Building was delayed for a second day due to preparation problems, reports the Associated Press.

Workers apparently couldn't produce a humidity level high enough to effectively kill the remaining anthrax spores. The second round of poison gas is now scheduled for Sunday.

The Senate building has been closed since October 17, two days after an anthrax-tainted letter was received in Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office. That letter is thought to have contained billions of spores.

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Study Finds Cholesterol Not Top Heart Attack Predictor

Routine cholesterol screening is a crucial part of cardiovascular disease prevention, but a new study says the measure of two other blood fats may be an even better predictor of heart attack risk, HealthDay reported this week.

Variation in the molecules apolipoproteins B and A-1 (apoB and apoA-1) has been previously linked to the risk of heart disease. But the latest study is among the largest yet to assess the two markers. A report on the findings appears in the Dec. 15 issue of The Lancet.

The study, done by the Swedish drug firm AstraZeneca, analyzed blood fats and heart attack risk in more than 175,000 Scandinavians between the ages of 16 and 83, most of whom were participants in cholesterol screening efforts. The risk of death was greatest for people who had elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the "bad" cholesterol), apoB, and another class of blood fats called triglycerides, the study found. The risk was lowest for those with more high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the "good" cholesterol) and apoA-1. However, people whose ratio of apoB to apoA-1 was highest (in other words, those who had high B but low A-1) were most at risk, the researchers said.

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