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Health Highlights: Jan. 22, 2007

FDA Proposes Gluten-Free Labels for Certain Foods Viagra Marketing Fuels Increase in STDs: Lawsuit Dogs Can Boost Your Health, Research Contends Blood Pressure Drug Helps Mice with Muscular Dystrophy U.S. State Prison Inmates Have Lower Death Rate Than General Population Tamiflu-Resistant Bird Flu Virus Detected in Egypt

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

FDA Proposes Gluten-Free Labels for Certain Foods

Under a new FDA proposal, certain foods made without a protein found in barley, rye and wheat could be labeled gluten-free, the Associated Press reported.

The agency is inviting comment on the proposal, which was posted on the agency's Web site Monday. The label could voluntarily be used on foods that have been processed to remove gluten. It would not apply to products made from naturally gluten-free foods such as corn or rice.

For an estimated .5 million to 3 million Americans with celiac disease, gluten can cause an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. Eventually, that damage can impair the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients from foods, the AP reported.

There is no cure for celiac disease, but people with the condition can manage it by avoiding foods that contain gluten.


Viagra Marketing Fuels Increase in STDs: Lawsuit

Drug maker Pfizer's marketing of its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra has caused an increase in HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, says a major U.S. AIDS group in a lawsuit against the drug company.

AIDS Healthcare accused Pfizer of deliberately marketing Viagra to men who do not need the drug. The lawsuit, filed under California law, accuses the drug company of "unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices," Agence France Presse reported.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is the largest AIDS healthcare, prevention and education provider in the United States, charged that Pfizer's "deceptive" marketing of Viagra "has caused an increase in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including, but not limited to, HIV/AIDS."

"Pfizer's direct to consumer marketing of Viagra as a drug to enhance sexual performance is primarily aimed at men who don't necessarily suffer from a clinical diagnosis of erectile dysfunction," Michael Weinstein, the head of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said in a statement.

"We believe it is not only irresponsible, but also illegal, especially in light of the drug's known use as part of a 'circuit party cocktail' of drugs that is fueling the spread of STDs and HIV," Weinstein said.

A Pfizer spokesperson was not immediately available to comment on the lawsuit against the company, AFP reported.


Dogs Can Boost Your Health, Research Contends

Dogs are better than cats at improving their owners' physical and mental health, suggests a study by a researcher at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Dog owners have lower cholesterol and blood pressure, fewer minor physical ailments, and are less likely to develop serious medical problems, according to Dr. Deborah Wells, a senior lecturer at the university's Canine Behavior Centre.

Wells found that people who adopted dogs and cats from animal rescue shelters experienced a decrease in minor ailments, such as colds, headaches and dizziness, in the month after they brought their pets home, the Telegraph newspaper reported.

However, only dog owners still reported those improvements after 10 months.

The study was published in the Health Psychology Journal.

"It is possible that dogs can directly promote our well-being by buffering us from stress, one of the major risk factors associated with ill health. The ownership of a dog can also lead to increases in physical activity and facilitate the development of social contact, which may enhance both physiological and psychological human health in a more indirect manner," Wells wrote in her study.


Blood Pressure Drug Helps Mice with Muscular Dystrophy

The widely-used blood pressure drug losartan reduced muscle damage in mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common form of the condition in children, concludes a Johns Hopkins University study published online Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.

Following six months of treatment with the drug, the mice showed a significant reduction in muscle damage, increased grip strength in their fore- and hind-limbs, and less fatigue in repetitive tests, the Associated Press reported.

The only current treatment for Duchenne causes side effects, so it's worth investigating whether losartan can offer an alternative, said Dr. Valerie Cwik, medical director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Cwik did not take part in the study.

"The results are very intriguing and certainly worthy of further investigation," Cwik told the AP.

Cwik noted that the drug is currently used in children and has a good safety profile.

The Johns Hopkins study also found that losartan seemed to improve muscle regeneration in mice with a rare genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome.


U.S. State Prison Inmates Have Lower Death Rate Than General Population

Overall, state prison inmates are less likely to die than people who aren't in prison, suggests a U.S. government report released Sunday.

The Justice Department document said that inmates in state prisons die at an average yearly rate of 250 per 100,000 compared to an overall rate of 308 per 100,000 for people ages 15 to 64 in the general population, the Associated Press reported.

The difference was greatest (57 percent) between black inmates (206 deaths per 100,000 per year) and the overall black population (484 deaths per 100,000). Death rates for white and Hispanic state prison inmates were slightly above the death rates for whites and Hispanics in the general population.

From 2001 through 2004, 12,129 inmates died in state prisons, the federal government said. Most of the deaths (89) percent were due to medical reasons. Eight percent of the deaths were due to murder or suicide, two percent were caused by alcohol, drugs or accidents, and one percent could not be explained, the AP reported.

Of the inmates who died from a medical problem, two-thirds had the problem before they were sent to prison. Heart disease, lung and liver cancer, liver diseases, and AIDS-related issues were the most common kinds of medical problems among both male and female inmates in state prisons.

The death rate for male inmates was 72 percent higher than for female inmates.

Of the inmates who died of a medical condition, 94 percent had been evaluated by a medical professional for that illness, and 93 percent had received medication for it, the AP reported.


Tamiflu-Resistant Bird Flu Virus Detected in Egypt

Egyptian officials say they're on high alert after detecting a strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus that shows increased resistance to the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which is used to fight the disease in humans, Agence France Presse reported.

Last week, the World Health Organization discovered that two people in northern Egypt had a mutated strain of the H5N1 virus with "reduced susceptibility" to Tamiflu.

Both people, who died in late December, were from the same household, AFP reported.

"The health ministry remains in a state of maximum alert and is reviewing its strategy in combating avian flu following the mutation of the H5N1 virus," Health Minister Hatem al-Gabali told a state newspaper Monday.

While the mutated H5N1 virus in the two patients is resistant to Tamiflu, it's susceptible to other antiviral drugs. This suggests that health officials could use a cocktail of antiviral drugs to treat patients with the mutated virus, AFP reported.

Health experts fear that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between humans and cause a global pandemic.

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