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Health Highlights: Dec. 11, 2004

Manufacturers Move to Sell Cholesterol Drugs Over the CounterHospital Test: Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Was Poisoned Fewer Teens Having Sex, U.S. Says Ford Recalls SUVs Over Accelerator Problem Extension Urged for Freeze on Teaching Hospital Penalties

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

Manufacturers Move to Sell Cholesterol Drugs Over the Counter

During the past decade, the federal government allowed a number of prescription antacid medications such as Zantac and Pepcid to be sold without a prescription. Now, it may be time for the same thing to happen to cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Apparently prompted by continuing research that anti-cholesterol drugs work well in preventing heart attacks, and a patent that expires in 2006, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. has announced is will ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to let it sell its prescription medicine, Pravachol, over the counter.

And another major pharmaceutical firm, Merck & Co., announced at the same time Friday that the FDA had already agreed to review a similar request in January for its cholesterol drug, Mevacor.

The Associated Press reports that the two firms may be following a trend established earlier this year when Britain allowed Merck's other cholesterol drug, Zocor, to be sold without a prescription. However, the FDA rejected similar efforts to have anti-cholesterol drugs approved in 2000, the wire service reports.

One of the difficulties in using anti-cholesterol drugs is that they can mask other heart-threatening problems, such as high blood pressure, and this can prevent people from seeing their doctors on a regular basis, an expert told the AP.

David Moskowitz, who heads the health care research group at the financial firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, is quoted by the wire service as saying patients on cholesterol-lowering drugs should be monitored carefully for the proper dose so they don't develop serious side effects. "I don't think these are going to be easy approvals," he told the AP.

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Hospital Test: Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Was Poisoned

In a development that reads more like a Robert Ludlum espionage novel than a news story, a hospital in Vienna has confirmed that a Ukrainian politican seeking his countrys highest office has been poisoned.

The International Herald Tribune reports that Viktor A. Yushchenko, the Ukrainian presidential candidate, had been poisoned with dioxin, a cancer-causing defoliant banned many years ago in the United States. For months, there had been public speculation about Yushchenko's appearance. Initially highly photogenic, his face had become pockmarked and puffy, and he was plagued by abdominal pains.

The newspaper quotes Dr. Michael Zimpfer, the head of the Rudolfinerhaus hospital where the politician had gone for treatment, as saying Yushchenko's disease "has been caused by a case of poisoning by dioxin." Zimpfer said that Yushchenko's blood dioxin level was "more than 1,000 times" the upper limits of normal and that his initial severe abdominal pain suggested that he had eaten the poison. He also strongly intimated to the Herald Tribune that Yuschenko's condition was not a case of simple food poisoning or inadvertent contact poisoning. "We have proved the source of his problem, and we clearly suspect third-party involvement," Zimpfer added, and referred all other questions to law enforcement authorities.

Yushchenko repeated his charge that his condition was the result of political reprisal since he challenged the outgoing Ukrainian presidents chosen successor, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich. The Ukraine Supreme Court threw out the results from a November election won by Yanukovich and ordered a runoff between Yuschenko and Yanukovich on Dec. 26. Yuschenko's political opponents had decryied the poisoning claims, saying instead that he had eaten bad sushi or had drunk too much, the newspaper reported.

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Fewer Teens Having Sex, U.S. Says

Fewer American teenagers are having sex, and those who do are using contraceptives more often, according to a new survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The decline was sharpest among boys and younger teenage girls. According to the survey, the rate of females between the ages of 15 and 17 who reported ever having sexual intercourse fell from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002. The rate among older teenagers barely changed in that time period, though.

Among boys between the ages of 15 and 17, the rate dropped from 43 percent in 1995 to 31 percent in 2002, the survey said; among those 18 and 19 years old, it fell from 75 percent to 64 percent.

When they do engage in intercourse, they are likelier to use birth control, the survey found. And contraceptive use rose to 79 percent in 1999-2002 from 61 percent in the 1980s. The teenagers were also more likely to have used contraception at their most recent intercourse in 2002. Two out of three used a condom, according to the results.

"More teenagers are avoiding or postponing sexual activity, which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy or emotional and societal responsibilities for which they are not prepared," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

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Ford Recalls SUVs Over Accelerator Problem

Ford Motor Co. announced Friday that it was recalling 474,000 Escape sport utility vehicles because of a faulty cable that can cause the engine to race.

The automaker said no accidents have been reported so far, the Associated Press reported. The problem was discovered through field reports and warranty information, the company said.

Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman, told the wire service that the SUVs involved are from the 2002-2004 model years and that the great majority were sold in the United States.

According to the AP account, a liner above the accelerator cable may prevent the engine from returning to idle, causing it to rev up. Owners will be notified by Ford and can have the cable replaced free of charge.

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Extension Urged for Freeze on Teaching Hospital Penalties

Teaching hospitals that use volunteer doctors to teach medical residents in community care settings may not have resume paying the U.S. government for their time.

The acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is recommending that Congress extend a moratorium on financial penalties demanding repayment of Medicare funding for family medicine residents' time in office settings with volunteer teachers.

Starting in 2002, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services demanded repayment of Medicare funds that paid for the cost of resident education for time spent in non-hospital settings when teaching doctors were volunteering their services.

The greatest impact was seen among those training to be family or private practice doctors, because they were most likely to train in non-hospital settings like offices and clinics. In these places, 85 percent of the teachers are volunteers, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, which supports an extension of the freeze.

That practice was suspended this year as part of the Medicare prescription drug law. The moratorium is scheduled to lift on Jan. 1, but Daniel Levinson, the acting inspector general, said it should be continued while alternatives are sought.

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