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Health Highlights: Jan. 3, 2005

Death Count From Tsunamis Nears 150,000 Diuretics Are Effective Treatment for High Blood Pressure: Study Too Much Alcohol Boosts Stroke Risk: Study Vioxx Tolls May Be Higher Than Thought: Whistleblower 2nd Case of Canadian Mad Cow Confirmed

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

Death Count From Tsunamis Nears 150,000

The combined death toll from last week's devastating tsunami in Southern Asia and Africa approached 150,000 Monday, as the nations of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand all raised their confirmed totals, the Associated Press reported.

News reports said as many as three times that number of people may have been injured. In addition, United Nations officials said 5 million people in the Indian Ocean rim countries lack clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine, and an equal number are homeless. Searchers have all but given up hope of finding more survivors.

U.S. warships with 2,200 Marines arrived in the Malacca Straights to begin delivering supplies to the devastated region -- part of the largest American relief effort since the Vietnam War, the wire service said.

As the scope of one of the worst natural disasters in history widened, health officials remain worried about survivors' risk of diseases spread by contaminated wells and reservoirs, human sewage, rotting animals, and overcrowding.

The most immediate threats probably stem from a range of diarrheal diseases like cholera and dysentery, especially where pure water fails to reach survivors quickly, the AP reported. Other big worries include respiratory diseases, like measles and pneumonia. In a month or so, outbreaks are likely from food- or water-carried ailments, like salmonella and hepatitis.

Health experts said clean water -- along with water-purifying tablets and equipment -- are urgent priorities in the massive global relief effort that is under way.

The World Health Organization, which is helping to lead rescue efforts, is seeking $40 million in donations. For more information, visit its Web site at www.who.int/en.

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Diuretics Are Effective Treatment for High Blood Pressure: Study

For decades, doctors have prescribed diuretics, drugs designed to remove fluid from the body, to elderly people to lower high blood pressure as a way to avert heart attacks and strokes.

But research in the past few years has revealed the drugs can raise the risk of diabetes, which can also lead to heart attacks and strokes.

However, the first long-term study of diuretics finds their benefits outweigh the risks, the Associated Press reported.

While diuretics can increase the risk of diabetes, they lowered the death rate from heart attacks or strokes by nearly 15 percent in patients getting them, compared to those given a placebo, the AP said.

The researchers followed 4,732 patients with high blood pressure for more than 14 years, on average.

"This is the most conclusive information we're likely to have, at least for some time," said Dr. Jeffrey Cutler, senior scientific adviser at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a sponsor of the study. "I think this will further reassure physicians."

The findings appear in the January issue of the American Journal of Cardiology.

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Too Much Alcohol Boosts Stroke Risk: Study

Researchers have long known that moderate consumption of alcohol can lower the risk of heart attack. But if your goal is to ward off stroke, you should drink no more than one drink every other day, and the beverage of choice should be red wine, HealthDay reported.

Consuming more alcohol than that will invite cardiovascular trouble, Harvard University researchers said. For men who drink three or more glasses of alcohol a day, the increased risk of stroke reaches almost 45 percent, compared with nondrinkers, according to the researchers' report in the Jan. 4 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"There has been an assumption that moderate drinking prevents heart attacks and prevents strokes," said study author Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "In the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that that might not be the case for stroke."

"As men drink more, the risk for stroke becomes particularly clear," Mukamal added.

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Vioxx Tolls May Be Higher Than Thought: Whistleblower

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration drug reviewer at the center of the Vioxx controversy says the number of Vioxx users who suffered cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke, may be much higher than previously reported, according to the London Financial Times.

Several months before Merck & Co. withdrew the painkiller in October, Dr. David Graham testified before Congress that as many as 28,000 Americans had suffered serious side effects since the drug's approval in 1999. Now, Graham is vowing to publish research suggesting that as many as 139,000 Americans died or were seriously injured by taking the drug, the newspaper reported.

Graham told the newspaper that the FDA has threatened to fire him if he proceeds with plans to publish the updated analysis in the British journal The Lancet, the Financial Times reported.

The FDA is now reviewing the entire class of prescription painkillers known as COX-2 inhibitors for possible links to cardiovascular problems. Besides Vioxx, they include two popular Pfizer medications, Celebrex and Bextra.

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2nd Case of Canadian Mad Cow Confirmed

A second Canadian cow has tested positive for mad cow disease, the Ottawa government confirmed. It said meat or dairy products from the diseased animal did not enter the human or animal food supplies.

More stringent test results announced over the weekend confirmed last week's initial findings that the Alberta dairy cow had bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the formal name for mad cow. The first Canadian case surfaced some 19 months ago, the Associated Press reported. At that time, the United States suspended imports of Canadian beef.

The U.S. government said last week -- just before Canada's announcement of a second possible case -- that it planned to reopen its markets to Canadian beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said imports were still likely to resume in March, despite the new mad cow announcement, the AP said.

On Sunday, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman said U.S. officials were confident the Canadian government had taken the necessary precautions to handle additional cases, the wire service said.

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