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Health Highlights: Nov. 27, 2002

Claritin Goes Over-the-Counter Face Transplants May Be in the Offing Skepticism Surrounds Doctor's Cloning Claims More Women Now Have AIDS Virus Than Men First Non-Stimulant ADHD Drug OK'd FDA Approves Bone-Building Osteoporosis Drug

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

Claritin Goes Over-the-Counter

Claritin, the popular allergy medication, has been approved for over-the-counter sales, which is a money-saving boon for the uninsured but will likely leave consumers with prescription drug plans paying more out of pocket.

Schering-Plough, the antihistamine's manufacturer, initially fought against the over-the-counter switch. The company argued that the insurance industry was pushing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make the change as a way of saving insurers billions of dollars since they don't cover nonprescription medicines, the Associated Press reports.

But Claritin's patent expires in December and cheaper generic versions of the drug will then compete for sales, so earlier this year, Schering-Plough reluctantly changed its course.

Advocates for over-the-counter sales say that because Claritin is a non-drowsy medication, it's safer than the other nonprescription antihistamines that cause sleepiness, which can be particularly dangerous if people drive after taking them.

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Face Transplants May Be in the Offing

Face transplants will be surgically possible within the next six to nine months, but a leading plastic surgeon in the United Kingdom is calling for an ethical and moral debate before anyone undergoes the procedure.

Peter Butler, a consultant plastic surgeon at London's Royal Free Hospital, said the surgery could benefit people who've been seriously disfigured by cancer, burns, or accidents. But, he added, the issue is not merely, "'Can we do it?' but 'Should we do it?'"

Current reconstruction techniques, where skin grafts are taken from other parts of a person's body, do not allow for movement or sensitivity, creating a mask-like effect, Butler told the BBC.

Because face transplants involve muscle and nerves as well as skin, the procedure would allow recipients to convey emotions through changes in their facial expressions. Surgeons could transplant the lips, chin, ears, nose, skin, and bone from someone who has recently died. The donor would also provide facial blood vessels, arteries and veins.

Butler said he plans to complete his research before asking permission to carry out a face transplant at his hospital.

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Skepticism Surrounds Doctor's Cloning Claims

Experts are skeptical about an Italian doctor's claims that a woman will soon give birth to a cloned baby boy.

Professor Ian Wilmut, the doctor who cloned Dolly the sheep, said Dr. Severino Antinori has repeatedly maintained that he's cloned pigs and other primates. In March 2001, he said he'd produce a human clone in 18 months. So far there has been no evidence to back up any of his assertions, CNN reports.

John Kilner, president of the U.S. Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, said that while Antinori's claims may come to naught, it's a concern that anyone is even trying to clone humans.

"Such experiments subject human beings produced through cloning to a high risk of death and deformity," Kilner told CNN. "The best way to ensure that cloning is not pursued is to pass a comprehensive ban on human cloning."

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More Women Now Have AIDS Virus Than Men

More women than men are now infected worldwide with the virus that causes AIDS, a new United Nations report finds. The sobering analysis -- co-written by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization -- also finds that 42 million people are infected with the HIV virus worldwide, and that 3.1 million people died from HIV-related causes last year.

Published in London just before World AIDS Day on Sunday, "The AIDS Epidemic Update" echoes earlier warnings of pending epidemics in Eastern Europe, China, and India, according to a BBC News Online analysis. Some 5 million people became infected with the HIV virus during the last year, and about a million of them were children under age 15.

By far, the most affected region is still sub-Saharan Africa, where 30 million people are said to have HIV -- 58 percent of them women. About 3.5 million new infections were reported last year in that region alone, the report says. In four of the area's countries -- Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe -- more than 30 percent of the population is believed infected.

Even more ominous is that the report declares that the epidemic is still "in its infancy" in many areas. "This is a critical moment of opportunity and danger. Unless we see national prevention initiatives championed by the highest level of government, the growth in infections can be unstoppable," it warns.

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First Non-Stimulant ADHD Drug OK'd

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first non-stimulant drug to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Eli Lilly's Strattera (atomoxetine) does not appear to have the potential for abuse, so the prescription drug will not be classified as a controlled substance, the FDA says.

Up to 7 percent of children and 4 percent of adults have ADHD, the American Psychiatric Association says. Symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, excessive talking, daydreaming, and interrupting others.

The drug works by blocking reabsorption of the brain chemical norepinephrine. Side effects of Strattera could include loss of appetite, stomach upset, fatigue, insomnia, dry mouth and dizziness, the agency says, citing clinical trials that involved more than 4,000 patients for as long as 2 1/2 years.

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FDA Approves Bone-Building Osteoporosis Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug that stimulates new bone formation in people suffering from osteoporosis.

Unlike current treatments aimed at stopping additional bone deterioration in people with osteoporosis, the new drug, called teriparatide, actually builds bone.

In a study involving 1,637 postmenopausal women and 437 men all with some degree of osteoporosis, patients who received 20 mcg's of teriparatide a day, along with calcium and vitamin D supplements, showed significant increases in bone mineral density at the spine and hip -- compared with participants taking only the supplements.

Because animal studies with teriparatide resulted in a higher incidence of bone cancer among the experimental rats, the FDA says the possibility cannot be ruled out that people treated with the teriparatide may face an increased risk of osteosarcoma, although there were no reports of the cancer in the human studies. A black box warning in the drug's label outlines this safety concern.

About 10 million Americans -- 80 percent of them women -- suffer from osteoporosis, which is a progressive thinning of bones.

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