Health Highlights: May 12, 2004

U.K. to Sell Cholesterol Drug OTC 3 Million People Died From AIDS Last Year: Report 1 in 10 School Kids Overweight, Global Report Finds Smoking Declines Reported in New York City, Washington State Botox May Treat Enlarged Prostate

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

U.K. to Sell Cholesterol Drug OTC

Britain will become the first country to permit over-the-counter sales of the cholesterol-lowering drug Zocor, the government announced Wednesday.

Health officials said a low-dose version of simvastatin, manufactured by Merck & Co. of Whitehouse Station, N.J., will be available without a prescription at pharmacies across the United Kingdom starting later this year, the Associated Press reported.

The BBC said the breakthrough move followed a recommendation by experts on the Committee on Safety of Medicines that the drug be made available without prescription in a 10-milligram dose.

Simvastatin, available only by prescription in the United States, belongs to the class of drugs called statins, considered a powerful weapon against the buildup of fat deposits that clogs arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes.

Pharmacists will ask people a series of questions and, if needed, will offer a range of optional health tests to ensure it is safe to take the drug, said British Health Secretary John Reid. Pharmacists will also have the power to refuse to sell the drug.

The Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association raised concerns about accurate risk assessments to potential customers and potential sales to people who don't need such powerful medicine.

But the British Heart Foundation, which financed one of the key studies establishing the benefits of statins, welcomed the move. "The evidence is that, in people at risk of heart attack and stroke, taking 10 milligrams of simvastatin each night can reduce their risk by about 27 percent," the A.P. quotes Sir Charles George, medical director of the foundation, as saying.

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3 Million People Died From AIDS Last Year: Report

Three million people worldwide died from AIDS last year, making it the top single cause of death among people ages 15 to 59, the World Health Organization says in its annual report. Some 5 million people became infected with the AIDS-causing HIV virus in 2003, the report added.

WHO's inspector general, Dr. Lee Jong Wook, predicted 6 million people would die in the near future if they don't receive treatment with antiretroviral drugs, the Financial Times reported. It's thought that fewer than 7 percent of those people -- mostly in developing nations -- have access to the drugs, according to The New York Times.

The agency's goal is to distribute the drugs to some 3 million people infected with HIV in hardest-hit Africa by the end of 2005. The drugs' declining costs mean a year's worth of treatment can now be obtained for as little as $150, according to the Financial Times.

"No country can afford not to treat its people with AIDS, Lee told the newspaper Tuesday while formally unveiling the report in Geneva, Switzerland. "This is a historic opportunity we cannot afford to miss."

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1 in 10 School Kids Overweight, Global Report Finds

One in 10 of the world's schoolchildren are overweight, and about 45 million of them have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses before they leave their teens, according to the first global assessment of child obesity.

The report estimates that at least 155 million, or 10 percent, of kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are too heavy, and almost 45 million of them are obese, the Associated Press reports.

The report found that in South Africa, 25 percent of teenage girls are too fat -- similar to the average in the United States, which has one of the world's biggest obesity problems.

It also found that in Europe, childhood obesity has increased steadily, with the highest prevalence in southern European countries. About 15 percent of children in northern Europe are too fat, compared with about 30 percent in the southern part of the continent, the report estimated.

And in the United States, the number of overweight Hispanic and black pre-teenage children rose twice as fast during the 1990s than did white children, the report said.

The findings, compiled by The International Obesity Task Force, a coalition of independent obesity scientists and research organizations, were submitted to the World Health Organization on the eve of a critical vote by the world's health ministers next week on the adoption of a global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, AP reported.

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Smoking Declines Reported in New York City, Washington State

New York City last year posted its largest decline ever in residents who smoke -- an 11 percent drop that amounts to 100,000 people. Nineteen percent of New Yorkers said they smoked in 2003, compared to 22 percent a year earlier.

In a statement, the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the decline would translate to at least 30,000 fewer premature deaths. It attributed the drop to tough new anti-smoking laws, higher cigarette taxes, a nicotine patch distribution program, and a successful campaign to educate people about the dangers of smoking.

"Fewer New Yorkers are smoking today than at any point in at least 50 years," said DOHMC Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Across the country in Washington state, the Department of Health reported a significant drop in late-term pregnant women who smoke -- from a high of 13 percent in 1998 to 10 percent in 2001, the most recent year analyzed. Smoking while pregnant, especially during the final three months, increases the risks of premature birth, miscarriage, sudden infant death syndrome, and learning disabilities, the Washington Post reported.

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Botox May Treat Enlarged Prostate

The anti-wrinkle wonder Botox is now emerging as a possible treatment for enlarged prostate, according to HealthDay.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said Botox may help alleviate symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). They presented their findings May 11 at the American Urological Association meeting in San Francisco.

The scientists injected Botox into the prostates of 11 men between the ages of 50 and 82. All had an enlarged prostate, which causes symptoms such as frequent urination, an inability to completely empty the bladder and urinary tract infections.

Within three to seven days of the injections, the men's average score on a prostate symptom scale had decreased by 62 percent, and a quality-of-life scale score increased by 57 percent.

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