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Health Highlights: May 22, 2006

U.S. Faces Shortage of Critical Care Specialists Botox May Help Treat Depression U.S. Sends Tamiflu Stockpile to Asia WHO Director-General Dies After Brain Surgery Drug Industry Donations to Hypertension Group Raise Questions Many Women Use Hormonal Contraceptives to Block Periods

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

U.S. Faces Shortage of Critical Care Specialists

Two-thirds of intensive care patients in the United States may be receiving suboptimal care because demand has exceeded the supply of critical care specialists ("intensivists"), according to a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.

The report states that there will be an estimated 35 percent shortage of intensivists by 2020 due to an aging population and the growing demand.

In response, a group of critical care societies is working with members of Congress to develop solutions. This group of societies, called the Critical Care Workforce Partnership, includes the American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society, Society of Critical Care Medicine, and the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

An estimated 360,000 deaths occur each year in ICUs not managed by intensivists. Increasing the supply of intensivists could save up to 54,000 lives each year, experts said.

"The number of patients who are critically ill is growing. The number of critical care specialists trained to treat these patients is not keeping pace. A shortage is not only imminent but upon us, and, unless steps are taken to address the shortage, patients with life-threatening diseases and others being cared for in ICUs will suffer," Dr. Peter D. Wagner, president of the American Thoracic Society, said in a prepared statement.

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Botox May Help Treat Depression

Botox may do more than just smooth a furrowed brow, it may actually help boost a person's mood, suggests a small U.S. pilot study that found that Botox injections improved the symptoms of 10 patients with depression.

Of the 10 patients in the study, 9 recovered from their depressive symptoms and the other patient, who had bipolar disorder (manic depression), experienced an improvement in mood, the Washington Post reported. The findings appear in the journal Dermatologic Surgery.

The study was conducted by Washington, D.C.-area dermatologist Eric Finzi, who said that a much larger study needs to be conducted before any conclusions can be made about a link between Botox treatment and improved depressive symptoms. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that expressions can influence mood, the Post reported.

"My theory on why this works is there is a feedback between the muscles of facial expression and the brain. Finzi said. "With yoga, you focus on your breathing, and it has an effect on your mind. My hypothesis is the facial muscles ... have an effect on depression."

Finzi has applied for a patent on the use of Botox to treat depression, the Post reported.

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U.S. Sends Tamiflu Stockpile to Asia

As a first defense against a possible bird flu pandemic, the United States is shipping a stockpile of the antiviral drug Tamilfu to Asia, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt announced Monday.

"It is a stockpile that would belong to the United States and we would control its deployment," Leavitt told reporters in Geneva, where he was attending the World Health Assembly.

The U.S. Tamiflu stockpile is being sent to a secure location in an unnamed Asian country and should arrive there later this week. Leavitt did not say how many courses of the drug were being shipped to Asia, the Associated Press reported.

This store of Tamiflu would be used to support international containment efforts if the H5N1 bird flu mutates into a strain that's easily passed between humans, resulting in a pandemic. However, officials could bring the stockpile back for use in the U.S. if it's determined that overseas containment of a pandemic isn't feasible, the AP reported.

By the end of 2007, the U.S. plans to have enough Tamiflu (75 million treatment courses) to treat 25 percent of the U.S. population.

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WHO Director-General Dies After Brain Surgery

The director-general of the World Health Organization died Monday after undergoing emergency surgery for a blood clot in his brain.

Dr. Lee Jong-wook, 61, had the surgery over the weekend. He fell ill Saturday while attending an official function and was taken to Cantonal Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, the Associated Press reported.

Lee, who became WHO director-general in 2003, spearheaded the agency's attempts to control the spread of the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus. He worked for WHO for 23 years.

Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado, president of the World Health Assembly, said Lee "was an exceptional person and an exceptional director-general," the AP reported.

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Drug Industry Donations to Hypertension Group Raise Questions

Donations by three drug companies -- Merck, Novartis and Sankyo -- to the American Society of Hypertension have focused debate about the influence of pharmaceutical industry money.

The three drug makers gave $700,000 to the society. Most of the money was spent on a series of national dinner lectures last year to brief doctors on the latest news about high blood pressure, The New York Times reported.

The three same companies also provided the money used by the American Society of Hypertension to draw up the main talking point of those dinner briefings -- a broader definition of hypertension that many doctors contend would increase the number of people taking drugs to control high blood pressure.

"This is about the monetarization of medicine," Dr. Michael H. Alderman, a past president of the American Society of Hypertension, told the Times.

In response to a deluge of criticism, the society said Sunday that members of its executive would now be required to disclose more information about money received from the drug industry.

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Many Women Use Hormonal Contraceptives to Block Periods

More and more American women are using birth control pills or other hormonal contraceptives to block their menstrual periods, and experts say it will become even easier with the expected arrival of the first continuous-use birth control pill on the U.S. market.

Doctors say that blocking menstrual periods is especially popular among young women and those entering menopause, the Associated Press reported.

The majority of doctors don't believe that suppressing menstruation is any more risky than regular long-term use of birth control. One survey found that most doctors have prescribed contraception to prevent periods and two recent U.S. national surveys found that about 20 percent of women have used oral contraceptives to halt or skip their period, the AP reported.

However, there's a need for caution because there's not enough data on the long-term consequences of continuous use of hormones, said Linda Gordon, a New York University professor who specializes in women's history and the history of sexuality.

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