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Health Highlights: May 15, 2002

WHO Takes On Junk Food in Fighting Global Obesity Govt.-Grown Pot Has Critics Fuming Mystery Illness Hits British Soldiers in Afghanistan Can Phone Towers Help Thwart Terrorism? Government Wants Anthrax Suit Dismissed Anti-Drug Ads Appear to Backfire

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

WHO Takes On Junk Food in Fighting Global Obesity

With staggering obesity rates reported around the world, the World Health Organization is calling for a shift in efforts away from individual guilt to curtailing the mass marketing and availability of foods that are high in fat and sugars.

Studies presented today at the WHO's annual meeting in Geneva gave a grim picture of global portliness, including such statistics as 300 million people around the world being obese, 750 million being overweight, and an estimated 22 million children under age 5 being overweight or obese.

Researchers added that even in some parts of Africa where malnourishment has been a problem, fatness and obesity can afflict up to four times as many children as malnutrition.

Mary Bellizzi, an expert with the International Obesity Task Force, told health ministers at the meeting that new approaches are needed to improve the nutritional quality of food available on a global scale.

"Education is not enough," she said. "We need to have a radical look at food supply in order to make sure that food that is supplied to the public is lower in fat, sugar and salt."

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Govt.-Grown Pot Has Critics Fuming

If the first experiments with legally grown marijuana for the use of medical purposes are any indication, the government has a thing or two to learn about growing pot.

Mississippi-grown marijuana provided to HIV patients in a California study is being criticized by medical marijuana proponents as being stale and full of stems and seeds, reports the Associated Press.

"It's stale, low-potency ditch weed," Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the AP of the San Mateo county study. "It's unconscionable that they would be giving this marijuana to patients," he said.

Meanwhile, another California medical marijuana study, in La Jolla, is having just the opposite problem -- the government-supplied pot is too potent. "They've reported getting high shortly after the first few puffs," said Dr. Andrew Mattison, the center's co-director. "These are people with a chronic, debilitating illness who do not want to get high. They want to get pain relief."

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Mystery Illness Hits British Soldiers in Afghanistan

An unidentified illness has affected 18 British soldiers serving in Afghanistan and caused the quarantining of 350 more people to prevent its spread, reports the Associated Press.

All of those suffering from the illness were military medical personnel serving at the main allied air base at Bagram, which is about 30 miles north of the capital city of Kabul.

The first complaints of the ailment started three days ago, when sufferers experienced fever, diarrhea and vomiting. Medics thought the illness first looked like meningitis, but said that it didn't appear to be the cause.

Two of the British personnel became ill enough that they required evacuation -- one to Britain for treatment and the other to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

There are no reports of U. S. personnel or soldiers or others in the coalition getting the illness.

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Can Phone Towers Help Thwart Terrorism?

Tens of thousands of cell phone towers across the nation could help limit chemical, biological or radiological attacks by hosting a network of sensors to detect the harmful agents, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory say.

Their proposed "SensorNet" network would involve sophisticated sensors being devised for the U.S. military, as well as existing software that would predict the size and movement of contaminant clouds, reports United Press International. Oak Ridge officials tell the wire service that the sensors would be able to identify most harmful agents in less than a minute.

The cell towers' up-to-the-second timekeeping capabilities would help officials determine an initial release site and monitor the spread of contaminants. The Oak Ridge scientists say they've worked to limit the possibility of false alarms.

One expert tells UPI that the nation shouldn't rely on such a network until the technology is proved. He also notes that cell towers are almost always outdoors, which probably wouldn't offer sufficient protection against a likely indoor release of chemical agents or microbes.

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Government Wants Anthrax Suit Dismissed

The Bush Administration has asked a U.S. District Court judge to dismiss a suit challenging the 5-year-old program that requires anthrax vaccines for all military personnel.

The Associated Press reports the the suit has been brought by an Air Force captain and a former Air Force major, both of whom refused to take the vaccine. They disagree with government assertions that the six-shot regimen is safe.

The Pentagon is still considering whether to resume the vaccinations, suspended months ago because of inadequate supplies. Sufficient supplies are now available, but the military has limited the vaccine to a small number of special forces.

The suit seeks to declare the vaccine experimental, in light of a 1999 Clinton Administration executive order that bars giving experimental drugs to members of the military without their consent.

The legal action was filed by former Maj. Sonnie Bates and Capt. John Buck. Bates refused to take the vaccine in 1999 and was fined and forced to end a 14-year military career. Buck, who refused the vaccine early last year, was court-martialed, fined, and confined to quarters for 60 days.

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Kids Are Ignoring Anti-Drug Ads

Teens are ignoring the government's multi-million dollar ad campaign that's meant to discourage them from using drugs.

"These ads aren't having an impact," spokesman Tom Riley says of the $180 million, 5-year campaign devised by some of the nation's best-known public relations firms.

A spokesman for the White House's drug policy office tells the Associated Press that a University of Pennsylvania survey found no evidence that the ads are discouraging drug use. In fact, the poll noted a slight increase in use among teens who said they saw the ads. The pollsters caution, however, that more analysis is needed before the ads can be directly tied to the increase.

The survey did not include the effectiveness of recent ads that link drug use to funding terrorism.

The drug policy office wants to change the way the ads are created. Currently, an advocacy group called the Partnership for a Drug Free America asks the PR companies to donate their services and create the ads. While the government buys the television and radio time, officials complain they have little creative control over what the ads say.

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