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Health Highlights: March 23, 2004

Tens of Millions of Americans Lack Access to Basic Health Care Medicare Will Go Broke by 2019, Report Says Microbicide Gels and Creams Could Help Reduce HIV Infections University Seeks Approval for Human Stem Cell Trials Tougher Drunken Driving Penalties Sought Restricting Calories May Extend Life World Population Growth Slowing

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

Tens of Millions of Americans Lack Access to Basic Health Care

A new report says 36 million Americans do not have access to basic health care.

The state-by-state National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) report focuses on an area that's often overlooked in ongoing discussions about health care that typically spotlight the 43 million Americans without health insurance.

"One in eight Americans -- that's 12 percent of the population -- are who we call 'medically unserved' -- with no access to health care," Dan Hawkins, NACHC vice president for policy, says in a prepared statement.

"They live in inner-cities and in isolated rural communities. But no matter where they live, the story is the same: They can't get health care because there aren't enough doctors in their communities who are willing or able to care for them," Hawkins says.

The report says low-income families account for nearly half of the people with no access to basic health care. Hispanics have the highest concentration -- 28 percent -- of "medically unserved" people.

Nearly half of the 36 million medically unserved Americans do have health insurance. The report found that Texas has the largest medically unserved population in the country, followed by Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

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Medicare Will Go Broke by 2019, Report Says

Rising health costs mean that Medicare will have to take money from its trust fund this year to cover expenditures, government trustees said in an annual report released Tuesday.

They also said that Medicare will go broke by 2019 if no changes are made to the program. That bleak forecast is partly the result of the new Medicare prescription drug law that will increase costs by more than $500 billion over 10 years, the report says.

It states that provisions of the prescription drug law, which was signed by President Bush in December, "raises serious doubt about the sustainability of Medicare under current financing arrangements."

The trustees' prediction of 2019 as the insolvency date for Medicare is seven years earlier than what they had projected last year, the Associated Press reports.

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Microbicide Gels and Creams Could Help Reduce HIV Infections

Simple microbicide gels or creams could someday help people protect themselves against HIV and transform the fight against HIV/AIDS, experts say.

Currently, about 60 microbicides to protect against HIV are in development and about 14 clinical trials are under way, BBC News Online reports.

The goal is to develop gels or creams that are applied internally to prevent HIV infection. The microbicides work in one of three ways: By killing the virus; by creating a barrier to prevent the virus from entering the body; or by preventing the virus from taking hold once inside the body.

Experts, speaking ahead of a major conference on microbicides next week, say such gels or creams could help people who are otherwise unable to protect themselves from HIV, the BBC reports.

For example, women in many developing countries are often unable to convince their male sex partners to wear a condom. Even if microbicides prove only partially effective, they could help prevent millions of new HIV infections, experts estimate.

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University Seeks Approval for Human Stem Cell Trials

The University of Minnesota is seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to launch clinical trials into the therapeutic use of stem cells in humans.

If it receives permission, the university would be the first public research institution to undertake human clinical trials with stem cells, the Associated Press reports.

One set of clinical trials would use stem cells taken from adults while another set of trials would use stem cells taken from embryos. Because the university is a public institution, all its embryonic stem cell research would be "transparent" and accountable, university officials say.

The university is in the process of briefing the FDA, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the United Nations on the planned clinical trials.

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Tougher Drunken Driving Penalties Sought

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) on Tuesday called for those who drink and drive to also be charged with child endangerment if a minor is in their vehicle.

"Driving intoxicated with kids in the car is a form of child abuse, pure and simple," MADD's national president, Wendy Hamilton, says in a statement. "It must not be tolerated by lawmakers, communities, or family members."

The group cited a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that 2,335 children were killed in automobile crashes involving drinking drivers between 1997 and 2002; nearly seven in 10 of them were riding in the vehicle of the drinking driver. The study also found that 32 percent of children were buckled up.

In addition to seeking the establishment of child endangerment laws, MADD is also recommending more awareness of the issue among lawyers, judges, and law enforcement officials; the revocation or suspension of a license if the violation involves a child; and a mandatory provision in a separation or divorce agreement prohibiting either parent from driving with a child while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

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Restricting Calories May Extend Life

Older people who eat a low-calorie diet may reap a benefit even greater than a slimmer waistline -- it may extend their lives, according to a new study.

In apparent proof that it's never too late to begin eating healthier, a strict low-calorie diet increased the life span of aged mice by more than 40 percent, the Associated Press reports of the University of California research.

While prior studies have shown that healthier eating can extend lab animals' lives, the new research was performed on 19-month-old mice -- the human equivalent of about 60 to 65 years, the AP reports. The better diet appeared to immediately slow the aging process, allowing the low-cal diet mice to live up to six months longer than litter mates fed a standard diet.

While study results on lab mice often mimic those later performed on people, it's still unproven that calorie restriction would similarly affect older humans, the researchers stress.

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World Population Growth Slowing

A declining global birth rate and the worsening death toll from AIDS are helping to slow the world's population growth, the U.S. Census Bureau says.

The global population is expected to be about 9.1 billion by 2050, the bureau forecasts. While that's a jump of nearly 50 percent from actual figures recorded in 2002, it represent a significant decline in the growth rate, the Associated Press reports of the bureau's projections.

The wild card, especially in the developing world, is how many people make use of contraceptives and family planning services, the bureau says.

In 2002, the global population rate was 2.6 children over the average woman's lifetime. The projections assume that rate will drop below two children per woman by 2050, the AP reports.

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