Health Highlights: July 29, 2008

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

FDA Experts Recommend Approval for Experimental Arthritis Drug

The experimental rheumatoid arthritis drug Actemra should be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an expert panel advising the agency recommended Tuesday.

The advisors voted 10-1 in favor of approval, despite the drug's serious side effects including possible infections, liver damage and cancer, the Associated Press reported. Last week, the FDA posted documents on its Web site that said Actemra appeared effective in treating moderate-to-severe RA, including symptoms such as disabling joint damage and pain.

RA differs from typical age-related arthritis, which involves wear and tear on the joints as people get older. In RA, by contrast, the body's immune system actually attacks the joints. About 2.5 million Americans have the condition, and most people get it in early adulthood or middle age, the AP said.

While most arthritis medications are designed to relieve pain, Actemra is a genetically engineered drug that blocks a protein called IL-6, which has been linked to the body's inflammatory response.

Actemra is made by Hoffman-La Roche Inc.

The full FDA generally follows the suggestions of its advisory panels, though it isn't bound to do so.


Global AIDS Deaths Declined Again in 2007

For the second year in a row, deaths worldwide from AIDS-related diseases fell in 2007, due mainly to increased distribution of anti-HIV drugs, says a UNAIDS report released Tuesday.

There were an estimated 2 million AIDS-related deaths last year, about 200,000 fewer deaths than in 2005, Agence France-Presse reported.

About 33 million people were living with HIV last year across the globe, compared with 32.7 million in 2006, according to UNAIDS. About 2.7 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2007.

The rate of people worldwide with HIV has remained around 0.8 percent since 2000. While this suggests the AIDS pandemic has stabilized, UNAIDS said more funding and a breakthrough in prevention are needed if progress against the disease is to continue, AFP reported.


Mediterranean Diet Becoming Less Popular in Countries of Origin

People in countries where the Mediterranean diet originated are abandoning it for food that's higher in salt, sugar and fat, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

The Mediterranean diet, based on fresh fruit and vegetables, is becoming less popular in several countries including Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, Agence France-Presse reported.

"Hailed by experts as keeping people slim, healthy and long-living, the Mediterranean diet has followers all over the world — but is increasingly disregarded around the Mediterranean," the Food and Agricultural Organization said.

The effects of that switch are readily apparent, the news service said. Greece now has the highest average body mass index in the European Union and the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity, AFP reported.


Don't Eat Lobster Tomalley: FDA

Consumers shouldn't eat the soft, green substance (tomalley) found in the body cavity of lobsters because it may be contaminated with toxins that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. The white meat found elsewhere in lobsters is safe.

The FDA's warning follows similar advisories from public health officials in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Canada after a red tide (algae bloom) contaminated fishing grounds , the Associated Press reported.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning symptoms — which usually appear within two hours of exposure — include tingling and numbness of the mouth, face or neck; muscle weakness; headache and nausea, the AP reported.

People who have such symptoms should see a doctor, the FDA said. In rare cases, consuming a large amount of toxin can cause respiratory failure and death.


Ritalin May Help Prevent Falls in Elderly

Ritalin may help prevent falls in elderly people, according to an Israeli study of 26 seniors who live independently.

Some of the participants received Ritalin (methylphenidate) — often prescribed to treat hyperactive children — while others received a placebo before they were instructed to stand from a sitting position, walk 10 feet, walk back, and sit down, Agence France-Presse reported.

Those who took the drug "performed the test quicker and had less variability in their 'stride time,' a common sign of instability," wrote the researchers at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. The study appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

While the idea of using a pill to reduce fall risk among the elderly is an "intriguing concept," not enough research has been done to recommend the use of Ritalin on a wide-scale basis, AFP quoted study author Jeffrey Hausdorff as saying.


Food Makers Spent $1.6 Billion Targeting Children

The 44 largest food and beverage companies in the United States spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 marketing their products to children and adolescents, says a Federal Trade Commission report to be released Tuesday.

About $492 million was spent on soda marketing, (primarily targeted at adolescents), about $237 million was spent on cereal marketing (primarily aimed at children under age 12), and restaurants spent close to $294 million on marketing that targeted children and adolescents about evenly, the Associated Press reported.


What percentage of the human body is water? See Answer

To prepare its study, the FTC used confidential financial data the companies were forced to hand over. The findings show that a large amount of money is being used to persuade children to eat foods that are often unhealthy, said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who pushed for the study.

"This study confirms what I have been saying for years. Industry needs to step up to the plate and use their innovation and creativity to market healthy foods to our kids," Harkin was quoted by the AP as saying. "That $1.6 billion could be used to attract our kids to healthy snacks, tasty cereals, fruits and vegetables."

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