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Health Highlights: Aug. 10, 2003

Colorado Woman Becomes 8th West Nile Fatality Lawmakers Fight America's Expanding Waistland California to Ban Flame-Retardant Chemicals FDA Cracks Down on Ads for Cholesterol Drug S. Africa to Offer HIV Drug Plan

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

Colorado Woman Becomes 8th West Nile Fatality

A 67-year-old woman from Boulder, Colo, has become the fifth person in the state to die from the West Nile virus this year and the eighth person nationwide.

The Colorado health department confirmed Sunday that the woman's death Tuesday was caused by West Nile.

This is the second summer that the sometimes fatal virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, has hit the state. But this is the first year that people have died, KUSA-TV reports. In all five cases, the victims were older women, the TV station reports.

The number of West Nile virus infections in the United States tripled last week, which federal officals warn will mean more people could be stricken with the disease this year than ever before.

A total of 16 states have now reported a total of 153 human cases of infection. Colorado has been hit hardest, with 72 cases. Texas follows with 19 and Louisiana with 15, HealthDay reports.

"We are starting the epidemic with more cases and more areas affected, and if the same pattern holds true, we may be seeing an even greater number of affected people," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news briefing Thursday.

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Lawmakers Fight America's Expanding Waistland

Lawmakers across the United States are girding to fight the fat of the land, amid soaring health costs for obesity-related medical issues.

Legislative solutions modeled after the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1990s are being proposed for what the medical community sees as one of the gravest threats to the nation's long-term health, the Washington Post reports:

  • In half a dozen states, lawmakers are debating bills that would require fast food and chain restaurants to post nutrition information such as caloric, fat and sugar content on menus.
  • Following successful efforts in Arkansas and Texas, 25 states are considering restrictions on the sale of soda and candy in schools.
  • Parent and advocacy groups in Alabama and Seattle are pushing to go one step further, waging campaigns to eliminate junk food advertising aimed at youngsters.
  • In New York, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D) has proposed six anti-obesity bills, including one that would tax not only fatty foods, but also icons of sedentary living -- movie tickets, video games and DVD rentals -- and use the resulting $50 million for nutrition and exercise programs.

About 34 percent of U.S. adults age 20 and older are overweight, and about 30 percent -- or 59 million people -- are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And with the extra weight has come serious medical consequences, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and kidney failure.

So far, state lawmakers have filed more than 140 bills aimed at obesity, nearly double the 72 filed last year, said Deirdre Byrne, policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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California to Ban Flame-Retardant Chemicals

California will become the first state in the nation to ban two forms of flame-retardant chemicals known to accumulate in the blood of mothers and nursing babies.

The legislation was headed for signing by Gov. Gray Davis, but the ban doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2008, the Associated Press reports. Manufacturers have said they need the time to find alternatives to the chemicals, known as PBDEs and commonly used to coat furniture, electronics, plastic and foam products.

Studies show North American women have the highest levels of the chemicals in the world, nearing levels shown to damage memory, behavior and learning in laboratory mice.

California researchers found Bay Area women have three to 10 times greater amounts of the chemical in their breast tissue than either European or Japanese women, the AP reports. Indiana University researchers found levels in Indiana and California women and infants 20 times higher than in Sweden and Norway.

The chemicals remain in the environment for years and build up in the body over a lifetime, similar to PCBs and DDT, which was banned decades ago in the United States.

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FDA Cracks Down on Cholesterol Drug Ads

The government has ordered the maker of the popular anti-cholesterol drug Pravachol to air corrections after overstating the drug's benefits in ads to both consumers and doctors.

The Food and Drug Administration order is considered an unusually tough move that signals more scrutiny of how truthful drug companies are about their products.

FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan highlighted the order to Pravachol maker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. in a speech Friday that was designed to put the industry on notice that the agency is getting tougher with lawbreakers, the Associated Press.

For Pravachol, one of the top-selling anti-cholesterol medicines, the FDA complained that ads in major newspapers and magazines give consumers the impression that the drug is the lone treatment for preventing strokes. It's not, and it only reduces the risk of strokes in people who already have heart disease, the FDA said.

Also on Friday, the FDA ordered another company, Gilead Sciences, to stop downplaying the risks of its anti-HIV drug Viread at AIDS meetings -- and to stop its salesmen from calling Viread a "miracle drug.'' The letter marked the FDA's second warning about the drug's promotion.

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S. Africa to Offer HIV Drug Plan

The South African government has dropped its long-standing resistance to providing drugs to combat the AIDS virus, and is preparing a drug plan to offer to infected people through its public health system by Oct. 1.

The decision came after the South African cabinet held a special meeting Friday to assess the financial costs of a national anti-HIV drug plan and to explore options for treating those with the infection, The New York Times reports.

South Africa has the largest number of HIV-infected people in the world, about 5 million, or more than 11 percent of its 43.8 million population, according to the United Nations AIDS program. The infection rate among its 23.7 million people aged 15 to 49 is even higher: about 20 percent of them are infected. So far, the epidemic has left 660,000 South African children as orphans.

The government said that because not every infected person needed anti-HIV drugs, known as antiretrovirals, its program would provide them initially to people with more advanced cases of AIDS. The program is also expected to provide prevention programs aimed at the tens of millions of people who are not infected.

The policy change comes in the same week that South Africa held its first AIDS conference, and just a month after President Bush pressed President Thabo Mbeki during his visit to Africa to come up with a plan that included both a drug regimen and prevention efforts.

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