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Health Highlights: Oct. 20, 2007

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

Drought Forces Georgia Governor to Declare Part of His State a National Disaster

Georgia governor Sonny Perdue Saturday declared the northern part of his state a natural disaster area, and asked for a similar declaration from President Bush.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Perdue's emergency measure came a day after state lawyers had argued in federal court that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should reduce the amount of water it releases daily to protect endangered animal species. Georgia is suffering through its worst-ever drought.

"The actions of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service are not only irresponsible, they are downright dangerous," the newspaper quotes Perdue as saying.

Meanwhile, USA Today reports that mandatory water rationing is just around the corner in Georgia. The state's environmental commissioner Carol Couch told the newspaper that industrial and commercial water users will probably have to make "across-the-board reductions" very soon.

The drought has hit much of the Southeast hard this year. In addition to Georgia, it is the worst dry spell ever for North Carolina and Tennessee, second-driest in Alabama and third-driest in Kentucky, USA Today reports.


Obesity Gets an Airing in British Parliament

So much of American society is based on its British heritage that it's unusual to see something of American society become part of the United Kingdom.

It's not a desirable habit, either. Just as in the United States, the Associated Press reports, obesity has become part of the fabric of British life. So much so that UK health secretary Alan Johnson had to explain its causes in a speech to Parliament Friday.

Johnson said that 60 percent of British citizens might be obese by 2050, the A.P. reports, but he didn't so much blame obesity on bad eating habits as he did a combination of factors: "a consequence of abundance, convenience and underlying biology."

A study by a division the UK's Office for Science concludes that excess weight has become the norm in Britain, the wire service reports, with one-in-four adults considered obese, which is still better than the United States, where one-third of all adults are obese, the A.P. said.

Some of the ways to prevent obesity from taking over the Great Britain, the government says, are taking action earlier with young, overweight children; exercising control over high calorie foods; redesigning municipalities to demand more physical exertion by residents; and making employers more responsible for their workers' health.


Impotence Drugs to Carry Hearing Loss Warnings

New warnings about the potential risk of sudden hearing loss will be added to the labels of Viagra and other drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

While it's not clear whether the drugs actually do cause hearing loss, the FDA said that since 1996 there have been 29 reports of hearing problems among users of these kinds of drugs, the Associated Press reported.

The new warnings will be carried by the impotence drugs Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, as well as the pulmonary hypertension drug Revatio, which contains the same ingredient as Viagra.

In the 29 reports noted by the FDA, hearing loss occurred within hours to two days after patients took one of the drugs, said FDA ear-and-nose specialist Dr. Robert Boucher.

"We don't know enough to say that it's ironclad caused by the drugs, but we see enough to say we can't ignore it either," he told the AP.

People who take the drugs and experience hearing loss or ringing in the ears should stop the medications and contact their doctor, the FDA said.


San Francisco May Consider Safe-Injection Site

In what may turn out to be the first step toward opening a safe-injection site, San Francisco officials co-sponsored a symposium Thursday on a facility in Vancouver, British Columbia, the only such program in North America, the Associated Press reported.

At the Vancouver site, about 700 intravenous drug users shoot up heroin, cocaine and other narcotics under the supervision of nurses. San Francisco health officials may consider a safe-injection site as a way to reduce the city's high rate of fatal drug overdoses.

"Having the conversation today will help us figure out whether this is a way to reduce the harms and improve the health of our community," said Grant Colfax, director of HIV prevention for the San Francisco Department of Health, the AP reported.

However, a federal official said the city's consideration of a safe-injection site was "disconcerting" and "poor public policy."

"The underlying philosophy is, 'We accept drug addiction, we accept the state of affairs as acceptable. This is a form of giving up," Bertha Madras, deputy director of demand reduction for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the AP.

There are 65 safe-injection sites in 27 cities in eight countries. So far, San Francisco is the only U.S. city to consider creating a legal safe-injection site, said Hilary McQuie, Western director for the nonprofit Harm Reduction Coalition, which promotes alternative drug treatment methods.


Sunlight May Decrease Risk of Advanced Breast Cancer

Exposure to sunlight -- which boosts levels of vitamin D in the body -- may reduce the risk of advanced breast cancer, according to a U.S. study published online this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The study of 1,788 breast cancer patients and 2,129 women who didn't have the disease found that women with high sun exposure had half the risk of developing advanced breast cancer than women with low sun exposure. However, this effect was noted only in women with naturally light skin color.

"We believe that sunlight helps to reduce women's risk of breast cancer because the body manufactures the active form of vitamin D from exposure to sunlight," lead researcher Esther John, of the Northern California Cancer Center, said in a statement. "It is possible that these effects were observed only among light-skinned women because sun exposure produces less vitamin D among women with naturally darker pigmentation."

John and her colleagues emphasized that women should not sunbathe in an attempt to reduce their breast cancer risk.

"If future studies continue to show reductions in breast cancer risk associated with sun exposure, increasing vitamin D intake from diet and supplements may be the safest solution to achieve adequate levels of vitamin D," co-researcher Gary Schwartz, of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said in a statement.


Bad Habits Increase Osteoporosis Risk

Smoking, excess alcohol consumption, being underweight, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition are factors that could increase the risk of osteoporosis later in life, says an International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) report released to mark World Osteoporosis Day on Oct. 20.

Osteoporosis risk factors fall into two main categories, modifiable and fixed. People can't control fixed risk factors -- such as age, gender, and family history -- but they can do things that may lessen their effects.

Following a bone-healthy lifestyle -- including eating a nutritious diet, getting regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and excess alcohol consumption -- can help build strong bones and prevent fractures, the IOF said.

By 2050, it's estimated that the incidence of hip fracture (a major consequence of osteoporosis) will increase by 310 percent in men and 240 percent in women, according to IOF Chief Executive Officer Daniel Navid.

Report author and IOF board member Professor Cyrus Cooper said if "people recognize osteoporosis risk factors when they are young and take appropriate action, it can have enormous positive impact on their bone health in later years."


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Posted: October 2007