This edition of the RFE/RL Health report previews next week's United Nations conference on Youth and Alcohol in Stockholm, where government officials from 51 nations are expected to be confronted with reports of a worsening alcohol problem among young people aged 15-29. This week's report by RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley also includes stories on UNICEF's "state of the children," review and the latest nutrition research on food's influence on cancer.
Washington, 16 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Health and youth ministers from the 51 countries in the World Health Organization's European region are to meet in Stockholm next week to discuss what to do about what the WHO says is the growing problem of drink and young people.
The WHO, a United Nations agency, says no group of people drinks more or suffers more because of that than Europeans. There has been some progress in cutting alcohol consumption in recent years in Western Europe, but the WHO contends things are getting worse in the eastern portion of the region, which includes the former Soviet Union.
The situation seems most critical for males aged 15-29. Juergen Rehm, a Swiss expert on addiction, told RFE/RL that in the former communist countries, males in this age group are three times more likely to die young than their counterparts in Western Europe.
"In these countries about three times more young males die than in Western countries, and that is really traumatic."
He contends that alcohol abuse contributes to a significant portion of those deaths.
"Basically we attribute some part of this difference to alcohol drinking because alcohol drinking has been in all of our analyses associated with [a] very large number of accidental deaths in this age group in ex-socialist countries."
Rehm, a member of the Addiction Research Institute in Zuerich, will present a report in Stockholm on the burden that alcohol abuse causes.
The statistical breakdown by individual countries on deaths among people aged 15-29 and the analyses of alcohol's suspected role in those deaths will not be made public until the conference, which runs from Monday through Wednesday.
The health ministers and youth affairs ministers will hear reports on the scope of the problem, its costs to society, and what the WHO says is the part played by aggressive marketing by the alcoholic beverage industry. The officials will then work on strategies to combat the problem.
Rehm says the primary causes of death among males in the age group are accidents, injuries, suicide, and alcoholic poisoning. He says that, even when other possible contributing factors -- such as armed conflict -- are considered in statistical analyses, alcohol still plays a dominant role.
"We're not claiming that alcohol is explaining all of this. We are not claiming that alcohol is explaining all of the difference between countries. However, we attribute in the former socialist countries around Russia and for example in Russia, we attribute about 30 percent of those deaths, actually a little bit more than 30 percent of those deaths, to alcohol."
Rehm says he believes one of the main reasons alcohol abuse is such a serious problem in some of the former Soviet republics is because of the way alcohol is used.
Rehm says that, rather than consumed in moderation, "alcohol is often drunk to intoxication." Making things worse for everyone, he says, is the fact that many who drink to excess drive while drinking. He says the authorities need to take action to enforce drunk-driving laws. This, he says, would reduce the number of what he termed avoidable deaths.
In offering explanations for the differences in alcohol abuse problems between East and West, Rehm says that social and economic conditions are important factors.
"I would say the poverty overall explains most of the differences between the EU (European Union) countries and the whole former socialist countries."
Report Says Children Can Thrive On Reduced Fat Diet
A report in the current issue of the medical journal "Pediatrics," says children with high cholesterol can be put on reduced fat and reduced cholesterol diets without fear this will harm their normal development in adolescence.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) study reported in "Pediatrics" followed more than 650 American schoolchildren for seven years. The children had higher than recommended levels of cholesterol in the blood. The children who followed low fat, low cholesterol diets recorded normal rates of growth and sexual maturation.
Jennifer Nelson, a senior nutrition specialist at the Mayo Clinic in the northern state of Minnesota, says the study results are reassuring. She says the results show that children who may be at risk for developing heart disease or diabetes because of their diets can be safely placed on nutrition programs without fear their growth will be stunted.
********** UNICEF Says World's Children Still Suffer
The United Nations' children's foundation known as UNICEF says that despite a decade of remarkable progress, the living standards of the world's children are still far short of goals set in 1990.
In a recent report on the state of children at the beginning of the millennium, UNICEF says more than ten million children under the age of five die each year. UNICEF says most of these deaths are from disease and malnutrition, conditions it says can be prevented.
The organization also says more than two million children were killed in armed conflict in the last decade and more than six million were seriously injured or permanently maimed. In addition, the report notes that about 300,000 children have been compelled to fight in armed conflicts.
However, UNICEF director Carol Bellamy also says that great progress was made during the 1990s. She notes there were advances in immunization against diseases, and improvements in nutrition. Bellamy also says there is widespread recognition of a child's right to proper health.
Fruits And Vegetables May Not Cut Breast Cancer Risk
Findings from one of the largest analyses of its kind suggest that eating lots of fruits and vegetables probably does not protect women from breast cancer.
A group of researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health analyzed data collected from eight studies involving almost 352,000 adult women. Lead researcher Stephanie Smith-Warner reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the risk of developing breast cancer was only three percent to nine percent lower in women who consumed the greatest amounts of fruits and vegetables and those women who consumed the least amounts.
Nutrition researchers have long speculated that eating lots of fruits and vegetables might offer protection against breast cancer because of compounds in the fruit that destroy dangerous molecules.
Smith-Warner says that while fruits and vegetables may not reduce the risk of breast cancer, eating lots of fruits and vegetables is linked to a lower risk for heart disease and other ailments, including different types of cancer.
One debilitating condition that experts are reasonably certain that fruit and vegetable consumption protects against is stroke, which can result from impaired blood flow to the brain.
In another study reported on Harvard's medical information site on the World Wide Web, researcher Kaumudi Jinraj Joshipura said the risk of a stroke is about one-third lower for people who eat fruits and vegetables than it is for people who don't.
"We found that fruits and vegetables are protective against stroke. People who consumed more fruits and vegetables, say about five servings a day, had 30 percent reduced risk compared to those who consumed almost no fruits and vegetables."
As for breast cancer, the Harvard researchers said more work is needed to find strategies to reduce a woman's risk of developing breast cancer.
(These reports are available at www.hsph.harvard.edu)