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Health Highlights: Feb. 6, 2004

U.S. Makes Ephedra Ban Official Different Doses of Aspirin Thin Blood With Plavix U.K. Expert Slams Prostate Testing Asian Pigs May be Infected With Bird Flu Nitroglycerin May Lead to Blood Vessel Damage More Carbs = More Obesity, 30-Year Study Finds

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

U.S. Makes Ephedra Ban Official

The U.S. government made official on Friday what it had announced late last year -- that it is banning sales of the herbal dietary supplement ephedra, which has been linked to 155 deaths and dozens of strokes and heart attacks in the U.S.

The ban means that by April, ephedra will no longer be available on store shelves. It's the first time the U.S. government has banned a dietary supplement.

"This FDA rule reflects what the scientific evidence shows -- that ephedra poses an unreasonable risk to those who use it," Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement. "The regulations prohibit the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra, and we intend to take swift action against anyone who puts consumers at risk by continuing to sell such products after the prohibition takes effect."

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told consumers to stop using the supplement immediately. Publicity about the health dangers of the herb have caused sales to nosedive. Three states -- Illinois, California and New York -- have already banned Ephedra, which was once popular with bodybuilders and people seeking to lose weight.

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Different Doses of Aspirin Thin Blood With Plavix

Coated and baby aspirin are equally effective in thinning blood when taken with the prescription antiplatelet drug Plavix, says a Northwestern Memorial Hospital study.

The study of 69 patients found that aspirin type and dose may not matter when taken in combination with Plavix to thin blood in order to reduce the risk of stroke in people with cerebrovascular disease.

"While research has shown that the combined use of aspirin and Plavix provides an enhanced blood-thinning effect for patients trying to reduce their risk of vascular events, the optimal dose and formulation is unclear," study lead author Dr. Mark J. Alberts, director of Northwestern's stroke program, says in a news release.

This study found that taking any dose or formulation of aspirin in combination with Plavix offers an enhanced blood-thinning effect compared to taking either baby aspirin or coated aspirin alone.

The study found that the following groups experienced a good blood thinning effect: 70 to 74 percent of patients taking baby aspirin or full adult aspirin with Plavix; 70 percent of patients taking enteric-coated aspirin with Plavix; and 74 percent of patients taking uncoated aspirin with Plavix.

The study was presented at the ongoing American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in San Diego.

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U.K. Expert Slams Prostate Testing

A British expert says that prostate specific antigen (PSA), which can detect prostate cancer, is too unreliable and potentially harmful to be recommended to patients.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Malcolm Law of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine says PSA should not be widely used because it's not clear whether the test actually benefits patients.

Men who test positive on a PSA test don't fare better than men whose prostate cancer is detected only when they start to experience symptoms. Law says public health officials shouldn't advocate tests of "unproven value."

He also states that, at present, the one certainty about PSA testing is that it often causes harm, BBC News Online reports.

"Some men will receive treatment that is unnecessary -- and the treatment will cause incontinence, impotence, and other complications," Law contends.

He notes that prostate cancer is often a slow-growing disease found in older men. Left untreated, many older men would die with the disease, not because of it, and not have to endure the ill effects of treatment for prostate cancer.

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Asian Pigs May be Infected With Bird Flu

A number of pigs in Vietnam appear to have tested positive for bird flu, which, if confirmed by more reliable tests, could significantly widen the outbreak of the H5N1 strain that's sweeping Asia, the Associated Press reports.

The results of the preliminary swab tests were reported by a spokesman for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the wire service says. Another FAO spokesman at the organization's Rome headquarters later backed away from the statement, saying the finding would pose no immediate threat to humans.

Swine are often housed with poultry on Asian farms, and are genetically more similar to people than birds, the AP reports. The human death toll from bird flu rose to 18 Friday with the deaths of two more Vietnamese, the AP reports. It has been confirmed that most of the victims came in direct contact with infected birds, although a case of possible person-to-person transmission is still under investigation.

Scientists fear that bird flu could merge with the genes of a common human flu virus to form a super-flu strain that no vaccine or anti-viral medication could control. If two new studies are to be believed, the scientists could have reason to worry. The new research offers evidence that the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed as many as 40 million people worldwide may have begun in birds, HealthDay reported Friday.

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Nitroglycerin May Lead to Blood Vessel Damage

Nitroglycerin -- frequently prescribed to limit chest pain in people with heart problems -- may cause long-term blood vessel damage, Duke University Medical Center researchers report.

Nitroglycerin works by expanding key blood vessels that boost cardiac blood flow. In studies on rats, the researchers found the drug also appears to limit production of a key enzyme known as ALDH-2. With less of the enzyme, prolonged use of the heart drug appears to begin producing free radicals -- unstable molecules that can damage heart cells and blood vessel walls, the researchers report in a prepared statement.

The findings could explain why some people who take nitroglycerin for long periods become unresponsive to other heart drugs, the researchers say. They suggest that doctors monitor nitroglycerin patients carefully and even lower the prescribed dose until the drug's long-term effects on people are investigated.

Results of the study performed by the Duke researchers and an affiliated group of German scientists are published in the new issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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More Carbs = More Obesity, 30-Year Study Finds

Despite the current anti-carb backlash, Americans over the past 30 years have been increasingly loading up on carbohydrate-laden foods like pasta, soda and cookies, according to a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among women, carb consumption as a percentage of total diet jumped to 52 percent in 2000 from 45 percent in 1971, reports The New York Times. Among men, carb consumption grew to 49 percent of total diet from 42 percent 30 years earlier.

The study, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that total calories consumed by the average woman each day jumped to 1,877 from 1,542, while for men the figure rose to 2,618 from 2,450. The U.S. government recommends 1,600 calories a day for women and 2,200 for men, the Times reports.

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