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Health Highlights: May 21, 2004

AARP Pushes for Lower Drug Prices Nations Plan to Tackle Poor Diet and Lack of Exercise Portable Generators Linked to Rise in Carbon Monoxide Deaths California Seeks to Ban Teens From Tanning Booths Lack of Vitamin D Poses Health Risks FDA Approves Drug for Rare Bone Marrow Disorders

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

AARP Pushes for Lower Drug Prices

The AARP is turning up the heat on the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices with plans next week to unveil its first issue of a new quarterly advisory called the "Rx Watchdog Report."

The report is meant to help consumers better understand and measure drug-industry pricing, along with industry trends and practices that affect consumer drug costs, the AARP says.

The "Rx Watchdog Report" will be unveiled at a news conference May 26. At the same time, the AARP Public Policy Institute will release a study that says drug prices increased at nearly three times the rate of inflation in 2003.

The study included pricing for the 200 most commonly prescribed medications.

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Nations Plan to Tackle Poor Diet and Lack of Exercise

Tentative agreement on a plan to tackle the expanding global epidemic of obesity and diseases caused by poor diet and lack of exercise was reached Friday by the world's health ministers.

The plan is meant to act as a guide for countries to develop policies that encourage people to adopt healthier diets and to get more exercise, the Associated Press reports.

The health ministers hope these lifestyle changes can slow growing rates of obesity and diseases -- such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease -- linked to poor diet or insufficient physical activity.

It's expected that the plan will be formally approved Saturday by the governing body of the World Health Organization, the AP reports.

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Portable Generators Linked to Rise in Carbon Monoxide Deaths

The number of reported carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning deaths in the United States caused by portable generators doubled in just two years, according to a new report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In 2003, the CPSC had reports of 36 deaths from portable-generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning, compared with 18 such deaths in 2001.

"If you use a gasoline-powered generator, set it up outside in a dry area, away from air intakes to the home," CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton said in a prepared statement.

"Opening doors and windows or operating fans to ventilate will not prevent CO build-up in the home. Even with a CO alarm, you should never use a gasoline-powered generator inside your home or in a garage," Stratton said.

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California Bill Would Ban Teens from Tanning Booths

The state famous for its tanned bodies and endless sunshine may be the first to ban its youth from artificial tanning booths without a doctor's approval.

California's state Assembly, citing 1 million new cases of skin cancer in the United States every year, has voted to bar anyone under 18 from tanning booths without a doctor's prescription. Along with 26 other states, California already requires a guardian's approval for teens to use the facilities, the Associated Press reports.

California has an estimated 1,500 tanning salons. Teens often visit the salons before proms, vacations and weddings. One owner cited by the wire service said teenagers account for about 5 percent of her business.

The bill now goes to the state Senate for consideration.

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Lack of Vitamin D Poses Health Risks

Amid growing concern that too much sun exposure could lead to skin cancer, more Americans are suffering the effects of vitamin D deficiency, the Washington Post reports.

The sun is a primary source of the vitamin, which in short supply could lead to bone and muscle problems, experts told the newspaper. Recent studies suggest low vitamin D may increase an elderly person's risk of osteoporosis and life-threatening falls and fractures, the Post said.

And newly emerging evidence indicates that lack of vitamin D may be associated with even more serious problems like certain forms of cancer, high blood pressure, depression, and immune system disorders.

Skin produces vitamin D naturally when hit by the ultraviolet light found in sunlight. But darker-skinned Americans and people living in northern areas tend to make far less than others, the newspaper reported. While milk and some other foods are fortified with the vitamin, people tend to get very little through their diets, experts noted.

These factors are leading a growing number of scientists to suggest increasing official recommendations for how much of the vitamin Americans consume each day, according to the Post.

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FDA Approves Drug for Rare Bone Marrow Disorders

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted special approval to a drug designed to treat a class of rare bone marrow disorders called Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS).

MDS, characterized by a lack of normal blood cell production, may develop following chemotherapy treatment, or it may occur without a known cause, the agency said in a statement. In some cases, the disease can progress to a form of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Pharmion Corp.'s Vidaza (azacitidine) was given what the agency calls orphan drug status -- normally applied to conditions that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States. The designation encourages drug makers to create medications for which there are relatively small markets by granting rights to exclusively market the drugs for a period of seven years.

An estimated 7,000 to 12,000 new cases of MDS are diagnosed each year in the United States, the agency said. Although it can occur at any age, the disease primarily affects people older than age 60. Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, infections, easy bruising, bleeding and fever. MDS patients often require blood transfusions and antibiotic therapy to treat infections.

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