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Health Highlights: June 13, 2006

High-Salt Foods Need Warning Labels, Medical Association Says Former FDA Chief: Agency Meant to OK Morning-After Pill Doctor Who Sparked Vaccine Controversy Faces Charges New Diabetes Drugs Add Double Punch to Older Medications FDA OKs Antidepressant to Treat Winter Blues

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

High-Salt Foods Need Warning Labels, Medical Association Says

The biggest doctors' group in the United States on Tuesday called for warning labels on foods that contain high amounts of salt, the Associated Press reported.

At a meeting in Chicago, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to urge the federal government to put such warnings into place, and to call on the food industry to reduce the amount of salt put in processed foods and restaurant fare. The group added that the goal should be 50 percent less salt within a decade, the wire service said.

As it stands, Americans currently eat almost twice the amount of salt that they should, the AMA said. That fact probably contributes to the high rate of hypertension and heart problems in this country, the association added.

In a council report that resulted in the new policy, it was suggested that labels with pictures of salt shakers and red exclamation marks might stop people from eating foods with too much sodium in them; too much would be anything with more than 480 milligrams of salt per serving. Some foods that fall into that unhealthy category include hot dogs, canned soups and pepperoni pizza, the report stated.

However, a spokesman for the Food Products Association questioned the new policy.

"Why single out salt?" Robert Earl, the association's nutrition policy director told the AP. "A direct link between salt and negative cardiovascular outcomes is not as clear as some portray it to be."

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Former FDA Chief: Agency Meant to OK Morning-After Pill

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration intended last year to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill. But it delayed action due to concerns about how to limit nonprescription sales to women 17 and older, according to a former FDA commissioner.

In a deposition over a lawsuit against the FDA, former commissioner Lester Crawford said, 'There was no -- no talk of denial, there was talk of trying to get straight what the enforcement procedures would be.' Girls 16 and younger would have needed a prescription for the pill.

The FDA is being sued by the Center for Reproductive Rights, which seeks Plan B sales for all ages. The group released the transcript of Crawford's statement Monday, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday. Crawford also said the review process should have been finished by now.

Crawford's Aug. 26, 2005, announcement that the decision was being delayed gave rise to charges of politics interfering with science. Crawford said he had expected the FDA would take no more than six to nine months to work out the enforcement issue, but he resigned the next month, the AP said. The FDA has yet to rule on Plan B sales.

Plan B is a high dose of regular birth control pills. Its active hormone, levonorgestrel, prevents ovulation, or if ovulation has occurred, prevents fertilization of the egg. If a woman is already pregnant, it will have no effect, according to research on the pill.

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Doctor Who Sparked Vaccine Controversy Faces Charges

The doctor who sparked a worldwide scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine is expected to be charged with professional misconduct by Great Britain's General Medical Council, the London Independent reported Monday.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 research paper published in the British medical journal The Lancet purported to show a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism, is accused in preliminary charges of publishing "inadequately founded" research, failing to obtain ethical committee approval, obtaining funding "improperly," and of subjecting children to "unnecessary and invasive investigations," according to the newspaper.

Detailed charges against Wakefield, 50, are being formulated by the GMC's lawyers and a public hearing is expected next year. If Wakefield is found guilty, he could be struck from the medical register, the Independent reported.

After Wakefield and 12 other doctors published the warning about the combined vaccine, tens of thousands of parents boycotted its use, leading to rising cases of all three illnesses.

The research was said to have done more damage than anything published in a scientific journal in living memory, according to the newspaper.

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New Diabetes Drugs Add Double Punch to Older Medications

Two experimental pills seem to pack a one-two punch for older diabetes drugs -- they not only help lower blood sugar levels but also help with weight loss.

The once-a-day medications are the first in a new class of type 2 diabetes drugs that manufacturers Merck & Co. and Novartis AG hope to win U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for and to begin selling by year's end, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Merck's pill, Januvia or sitagliptin, lowered blood sugar levels by 0.67 percent for participants in a yearlong trial, or just as much as another, older drug, glipizide, the AP reported. Novartis' pill, Galvus or vildagliptin, reduced blood sugar levels by 1.9 percent when used with another older drug, pioglitazone, which reduces insulin resistance.

Excess weight is a common problem in type 2 patients. Both experimental pills helped patients maintain or even lose weight in the trials. Side effects of the pills included cold and flu-like symptoms and headaches.

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FDA OKs Antidepressant to Treat Winter Blues

Federal regulators on Monday approved GlaxoSmithKline's antidepressant Wellbutrin XL to help treat the estimated half a million people in the United States who suffer from winter depression.

The U.S. Food and Administration said the drug is the first to be approved to treat the condition, which causes bouts of recurrent depression, and is known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Wellbutrin XL (bupropion HCL extended release tablets) had been previously approved for treatment of major depressive disorder.

"The effectiveness of Wellbutrin XL for the prevention of SAD episodes was established in 3 double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in adults with a history of major depressive disorder in autumn and winter," the FDA said in a prepared statement. "Treatment was initiated prior to the onset of symptoms in the autumn (September to November) and was discontinued following a two-week taper that began the first week of spring (fourth week of March). In these trials, the percentage of patients who were depression-free at the end of treatment was significantly higher for those on Wellbutrin XL than for those on placebo; for all 3 studies combined, the overall rate of patients depression-free at the end of treatment was 84 percent for those on Wellbutrin XL compared to 72 percent for those on placebo."

The drug's label includes a "black box" warning on the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in pediatric patients treated with antidepressants.

As sunlight patterns change in autumn and winter, there is a shift in the "biological internal clocks" or circadian rhythms, according to the National Mental Health Association. This can cause your biological clocks to be out of step with normal activities. January and February are the most difficult months for sufferers, and younger persons and women are at higher risk, the association says.

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