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Health: El Nino Could Cause Increase In Infectious Diseases

  • Kevin Foley



Washington, 29 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This week's health file looks at more bad news blamed on the weather system called "El Nino," a medication that has millions of men, and many women, flocking to urologists, and a U.S. government study on the financial costs of alcoholism.

El Nino Fallout -- Will It Bring More Infectious Disease?

The Pacific regions of both North and South America were battered this past year by a weather system named for the infant Jesus. The phenomenon known as El Nino (Spanish for the Child) has just about run its course and experts in the Western Hemisphere are now watching to see if El Nino might leave lingering health effects behind in the form of a greater incidence in insect-and rodent-borne diseases.

El Nino weather systems develop every few years and are responsible for heavy rains, severe flooding and mud slides and other dramatic weather-related events in the Pacific Coast states of the U.S. and the Pacific coast nations in South America. This year's El Nino was described as one of the most turbulent ever recorded. The system also affected weather patterns further inland, causing a wetter and milder winter in most of the Uniterd States.

Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious disease specialist at the world renown Mayo Clinic in the midwestern U.S. state of Minnesota, says previous El Nino-associated heavy rains have been linked with disease outbreaks in many parts of the world, including Australia, the United States, Argentina and Pakistan.

Virk told the Mayo Clinic's electronic newsletter "Oasis" that it is still too early to see an increase in disease due to this year's El Nino. He says that if there is to be an increase, it probably won't be apparent until late summer.

Roger Nasci, an insect specialist with the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says increased rainfall amounts always lead to increases in the mosquito population. Mosquitoes can transmit several diseases to human and warm-blooded animals. Nasci says, however, that that does not automatically translate into more disease in humans, but he says it does raise concerns.

U.S. Documents Burden Of Alcoholism On Economy

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimate that alcoholism costs the U.S. economy almost 250,000 million dollars a year. The institutes say this represents 965 dollars for every man, woman, and child living in the United States.

A new study based on information analyzed for 1992 -- the most recent year that enough data was available -- reports that alcohol abuse and alcoholism generated about 60 percent of the estimated costs, while drug abuse and dependence accounted for the remaining 40 percent.

Dr. Enoch Gordis, director of the alcoholism institute, says the study "confirms the enormous damage done to society by alcohol- and drug-related problems." Dr. Alan Leshner, director of the drug abuse institute, says "the rising costs from drug-related public health issues warrant a strong, consistent, and continuous investment in research on prevention and treatment."

The last comprehensive estimate of the burden of alcoholism on the U.S. economy was finished in 1985. The new estimates are 42 percent higher for alcohol and 50 percent higher for drugs than the estimates reported in the earlier study.

Nothing Slows Demand For Viagra

News reports say the worldwide demand for the anti-impotence drug Viagra has not slackened, despite some cautions for some consumers and despite the deaths of six men in the United States and two men in Brazil who were taking the medication.

However, six Middle Eastern nations have banned the sale of the drug, it has been removed from the market in Israel and it is not yet legally available in most of Europe while European Community members await safety test results from London.

Since its introduction into the U.S. market a little more than a month ago, Viagra has been the hottest selling medication in history. An estimated 18 million American men suffer from impotence -- the inability to achieve or sustain an erection for sexual intercourse.

Viagra has proven benefits for many men afflicted with impotence, and it has the added benefit of being available in the form of a pill. Standard impotence treatments until now included injections, vacuum pumps and surgical implants.

Viagra overcomes impotence by blocking the action of an enzyme that relaxes an erection. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the manufacturer, Pfizer, say more than one million prescriptions have been written for the drug since its use was approved by the government.

Pfizer confirmed last week that six men who were taking the medication had died, but the FDA said there is no evidence to connect the drug to the deaths. Many impotent men also suffer from other health problems, including heart ailments and circulatory diseases. In fact, Pfizer has warned men who take certain heart medications such as nitroglycerine that the use of Viagra could be dangerous.

Despite assurances of the drug's safety for most patients from Pfizer, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have banned sales of Viagra pending the outcome of their own health tests.

Stories of the drug's potency have created a thriving black market in Europe and the Middle East, even among men who are not impotent. Pfizer officials say, however, that the drug is not an aphrodisiac and that it will not enhance sexual performance or desire.
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