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Health Highlights: Feb. 2, 2004

FDA Opens Hearing on Antidepressants for Children Two More Bird Flu Deaths Reported in Asia Laura Bush Helps Kick Off Heart Awareness Month Poll: Most Americans Not Worried About Mad Cow Nerf Footballs Recalled

FDA Opens Hearing on Antidepressants for Children

Anguished parents urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday to block the use of adult antidepressants in children, saying the drugs can increase a child' risk of suicide, the Associated Press reports.

"To die in this violent, unusual fashion without making a sound... Paxil must have put her over the edge," said Sara Bostock, describing how her daughter Cecily stabbed herself in the chest with a knife soon after graduating from Stanford University and two weeks after starting the drug, the news agency reports.

Conversely, some families detailed how the antidepressants had transformed their ill children's lives by lifting serious depression.

"My children have had tremendous improvement with their illnesses," said Suzanne Vogel-Scieilia of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, who has two sons using the drugs. "I shudder to think of their plight if these medicines were not available."

SSRIs, widely used antidepressants that include brand names such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, have amassed quite a history. A decade ago, physicians and patients fretted over case reports indicating that some individuals, mostly adults, experienced a worsening of suicidal tendencies while taking the drugs, HealthDay reports.

Last year, the controversy flared again when British health officials advised doctors not to prescribe any SSRIs except for fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac) for depressed youth under the age of 18 because the drugs might increase suicidal thinking and behavior.

Last fall, the FDA recommended that physicians not prescribe Paxil to children under 18.

Just last week, though, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology concluded SSRIs are both safe and effective for children and teenagers.

The FDA will focus much of its attention in the hearing on whether these drugs increase "suicidality," or thoughts of suicide.

The agency isn't expected to rule on the matter until the summer.

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Two More Bird Flu Deaths Reported in Asia

A Vietnamese teenaged boy and a 58-year-old Thai woman are the latest victims of bird flu, whose human toll has now risen to 12, the Associated Press reports.

Those countries are the only ones reporting human deaths, while the disease has ravaged poultry farms in 10 Asian nations. Millions of chickens and other fowl have been slaughtered across the continent to try to contain the epidemic.

Most of the confirmed cases among people are the result of contact with infected birds, although the World Health Organization is investigating the possibility that two Vietnamese sisters who died recently may have acquired the disease directly from a brother who died earlier. If confirmed, it would represent the first person-to-person transmission of the deadly virus. Investigators are hampered by the fact that the brother's remains were cremated before tests could be performed.

Meanwhile, China is reporting five new outbreaks among poultry -- one more than 1,000 miles from the southern province where the country's first case was confirmed last week, the AP reports.

Although no cases of bird flu have been reported in the West, U.S. experts are warning that nations should begin stockpiling antiviral drugs as a precaution. While there is no vaccine for bird flu, common antiviral medications could both shorten the illness for those who acquire it and prevent others from catching it entirely, the AP reports.

Doctors consulted by the wire service say one brand, Tamiflu, is particularly well-suited to being stockpiled for this purpose. But no government has bought the huge amounts needed, the AP reports. Experts are particularly worried that the lethal bird flu strain in Asia could combine with a common flu strain that targets people, leading to a worldwide pandemic that no existing medication or vaccine would successfully cure or prevent.

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Laura Bush Helps Kick Off Heart Awareness Month

Too many women still think of heart disease as a man's disease, yet it will kill nearly a half million U.S. women this year.

That's why First Lady Laura Bush on Monday joined doctors, researchers, heart disease survivors and health advocates -- including her husband -- in the White House to educate women -- and all Americans -- on ways to stave off heart disease, the Associated Press reports.

"Sixty-five thousand more women will die from cardiovascular disease this year than men," Mrs. Bush said, helping to kick off Heart Awareness Month. "What's most alarming is that most women don't know this. Many believe that cancer is their greatest concern, yet heart disease kills more women in our country than all forms of cancer combined."

She urged all Americans to exercise daily, eat healthy foods, avoid tobacco, refrain from drinking too much alcohol, and get screenings to detect heart problems early, the AP says.

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Poll: Most Americans Not Worried About Mad Cow

Fewer than one in five Americans (18 percent) are concerned that they or a family member will get mad cow disease, a new Harvard School of Public Health survey concludes. This compares with 70 percent who think someone in their family is likely to get the flu.

At the same time, 16 percent say they or a family member have stopped ordering beef at restaurants, and 14 percent say they've stopped buying beef at the supermarket.

The poll also finds that 27 percent of Americans mistakenly believe the mad cow has been diagnosed among people in the United States. In fact, no cases have been reported among Americans, and the only one among U.S. cattle is a single Holstein diagnosed in December in Washington state.

Some 82 percent of respondents expressed only some to no confidence at all in the government's meat inspection program and its ability to protect Americans from the disease.

The survey was conducted Jan. 7-11 among 1,015 adults nationwide.

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Nerf Footballs Recalled

Hasbro has recalled 294,000 "Big Play" Nerf footballs, whose hard interior plastic frames pose a risk of facial cuts, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

The company has nine reports of facial injuries, including eight that required stitches or medical attention.

The red and silver football has a silver flip-open top that houses an erasable writing pad for writing football plays. Writing on the ball includes the Nerf name, an NFL logo, a large black "X," and the signature of Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.

The product, which costs about $10, was sold at Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart, Target, KB Toys, and other retailers nationwide from August 2003 to January 2004.

Consumers are urged to stop using the football immediately, and to contact Hasbro at 1-866-637-3244 to learn how to return the product for a free replacement.

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