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Health Highlights: Oct. 30, 2002

WHO: Risk Factors to Worldwide Health Cited Russians Identify Gas Used in Hostage Crisis Sacre Bleu! McDonald's in France Warns About Fast Food Majority Suffered Side Effects From Anthrax Antibiotics Bush Admin. Calls Embryos 'Human Subjects' Medical Marijuana Proponents Win Legal Victory

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

WHO: Risk Factors to Worldwide Health Cited

Worldwide health could be significantly improved if individuals and governments focused on the factors that threatened people's well-being, according to a study that forms the basis of the World Health Report (WHO) 2002.

WHO personnel selected 25 risk factors and reviewed data on how frequently people in 14 world regions were exposed to health perils as well as the size of the hazards, reports The Lancet. According to the study, the foremost causes of disease were: childhood and maternal underweight, unsafe sex, high blood pressure, tobacco, and alcohol.

In the world's poorest areas, people's health was most affected by: childhood and maternal underweight, unsafe sex, unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and hygiene, indoor smoke from solid fuels, and vitamin deficiencies. And in both developed and developing regions, alcohol, tobacco, high blood pressure and high cholesterol ranked high as disease-causing burdens.

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Russians Identify Gas Used in Hostage Crisis

When Russian troops stormed a Moscow theater last weekend, the gas that disabled hundreds of hostages and their captors was based on fentanyl, a fast-acting opiate used in medical procedures, reports the Associated Press.

Critics have charged that there might have been fewer deaths from the gas -- at least 117 people died -- if doctors and other emergency workers knew what anesthetic they were dealing with. But Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko blamed the fatalities on the fact that the chemical compound was inhaled by people who'd been physically and psychologically depleted.

In the United States, fentanyl carries warnings that the sedative can be fatal if given in too high a dose, according to the AP. A toxicology professor at Munich University Clinic in Germany said traces of the anesthetic halothane were also present in blood and urine samples taken from two German hostages.

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Sacre Bleu! McDonald's in France Warns About Fast Food

McDonald's in France has cautioned its customers about over-indulging at its fast-food outlets, reports The New York Times.

In an "advertorial" about obesity that ran in the magazine Femme Actuelle, McDonald's France said forbidding children from eating fast food will only make them want it more. But it also included this caveat: "However, there is no reason to eat excessive amounts of junk food, nor go more than once a week to McDonald's."

A U.S. McDonald's spokesman said the company disagreed with the advertorial's views but declined to say how the statement could have been published without company approval.

Nutrition advocacy groups in the United States have long blamed McDonald's and other fast food outlets as one factor behind the country's high rates of obesity.

John F. Banzhaf III, a law professor at George Washington University who initiated lawsuits against tobacco companies, has recently shifted his focus to the fast food business. "It's one thing for a health advocate like me to call for something like this, but when someone in the industry calls for what we are saying, that makes it sound very reasonable," he told The Times.

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Majority Suffered Side Effects From Anthrax Antibiotics

The majority of people who took antibiotics for anthrax during last year's attacks never finished the treatment and most suffered side effects, the Associated Press reports.

U.S. officials interviewed almost 6,200 of the 10,000 people who were prescribed either ciprofloxacin or doxycycline after possible exposure to the deadly spores. Of those, about 57 percent complained of side effects that included stomach pain, nausea, headaches and dizziness, and only 44 percent completed the treatment. A few needed to be hospitalized.

Dr. Colin Shepard, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that despite the reported side effects, he was "reassured" by the antibiotics' effectiveness because the complaints weren't severe.

Last fall's anthrax-by-mail attacks killed five people and sickened 13 others.

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Bush Administration Calls Embryos 'Human Subjects'

In rewriting the charter of a U.S. government committee that covers research volunteers, the Bush Administration for the first time has referred to embryos as "human subjects," the Washington Post reports.

While the charter doesn't require that embryos be given the same rights as fetuses, children or adults, the wording could signal the beginning of greater restrictions on embryo research at some laboratories and fertility clinics, experts told the newspaper.

The charter for the Department of Health and Human Services' Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections reads, in part, "the committee will provide advice relating to the responsible conduct of research involving human subjects with particular emphasis on... pregnant women, embryos, and fetuses" and other "populations" of human research subjects, the Post reports.

Some scientists condemned the government's action. "We do not think that an entity that is designed to protect human subjects of research is the appropriate place to deal with the regulation of reproductive tissues, be they sperm, eggs or embryos," said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Other groups praised the new wording. "We applaud the administration for explicitly recognizing in the charter that the term 'human subjects' includes all living members of the species Homo sapiens at every stage of their development," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

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Medical Marijuana Proponents Win Legal Victory

The U.S. government cannot revoke the licenses of doctors who prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes, a federal appeals court in San Francisco has ruled.

Yesterday's decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals represents the biggest legal victory to date for medical marijuana proponents, who have sponsored voter initiatives in nine states, reports The New York Times.

Spokespeople for the U.S. Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration told the newspaper that their agencies were reviewing the decision. They refused to say whether the federal government would appeal the ruling.

Medical marijuana proponents had asked the court -- considered among the most liberal in the nation -- to uphold California's Proposition 215, which allows people to grow and use marijuana as long as they have a doctor's prescription. Similar laws are on the books in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state, the Times reports.

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