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Health Report: WHO Campaigns For Mental Fitness

In this issue of the RFE/RL Health Report, correspondent K.P. Foley details efforts underway to understand, prevent, and cure Alzheimer's disease, the degenerative brain disorder that afflicts an increasing number of older adults. The Health Report also features news on a national HIV/AIDS prevention strategy in Bulgaria, and new European research linking pollution to disease.


Experts Seek More Alzheimer's Research Funding

Washington, 5 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan may be the most famous victim of Alzheimer's disease (AD), but he is just one of an ever increasing number of older adults suffering from the degenerative brain disorder.

U.S. public health officials estimate that about four million Americans have AD. In Europe, the non-profit organization called Alzheimer Europe says one of every twenty people over the age of 65 has AD. The number is expected to grow significantly as populations in the developed world increase. Europe currently has the largest population of senior citizens of any region in the world.

Richard Hodes, the director of the U.S. government's National Institute on Aging, told a public hearing in Washington this week that Alzheimer's is a terrifying disease. "Alzheimer's is a progressive and devastating disorder of the brain which as the result of a long cascade of events results in deterioration of intellectual function and ultimately a loss of independence."

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia known to medicine. Dementia is a term that encompasses a collection of symptoms that disrupt the way the brain works. This brain damage affects a person's mental functions -- things like memory and concentration.

Experts stress that dementia does not await every pensioner. For most people, the odds of developing the condition are one in 1,000. Old age does not cause Alzheimer's, but advancing age increases the likelihood of AD.

Alzheimer's slowly and progressively destroys brain cells. In the process it robs victims of their memories, their ability to recognize family and friends, and often their ability to perform simple everyday tasks such as dressing or bathing. Alzheimer's is also sometimes marked by heightened states of agitation or confusion. At the moment, there is neither prevention nor cure.

Advocates for more government funds for research met this week with a panel of U.S. senators to appeal for a major increase in funding for the U.S. National Institutes of Health division on aging. The U.S. spends about $520 million annually on Alzheimer's research. Non-governmental advocates want a $200 million increase. The White House has asked Congress to raise the research budget by $60 million.

Hodes said the additional money "would be spent supporting the very highest quality of research." He told the senators that investigators believe the best approach to Alzheimer's is to follow as many avenues of research as possible.

"These studies, because they are aimed at preventing the appearance of disease, require many years to completion. They are, therefore, the type of study that needs to be carried out in parallel as we explore multiple avenues to opportunity, not knowing which is going to be the one that offers the greatest promise."

The official said the Institute on Aging is funding studies that look at possible causes of the disease. For example, research is underway to determine whether Alzheimer's is caused by a virus, as some scientists believe. Other researchers have found concentrations of aluminum, zinc, and other metals in the brain tissue of Alzheimer's sufferers, so they are studying to see whether these metals cause the disease or are a byproduct of the condition.

Hodes says this research is time-consuming and costly.

"These trials take many years, many individuals. They are perhaps the most expensive form of research that we carry out. Individual trials of this sort may involve costs in the range from $20 to $40 or $50 million."

He noted in addition that researchers are also studying how they can ease the burden on families of caring for Alzheimer's patients.


UN Set For World Health Day 2001

Saturday (7 April) is World Health Day, a commemoration sponsored by the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO). This year's theme is a campaign for mental health.

The WHO says that worldwide, some 400 million people suffer from mental or neurological disorders -- including Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia -- and from problems tied to drug or alcohol abuse. The WHO says that one of every four people who seek medical care suffer from mental or neurological ailments. However, the agency says few of these patients are diagnosed correctly and ever fewer receive proper treatment.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland says responsibility for this state of affairs is shared by individuals and governments. She says, "governments have been remiss in that they have not provided adequate means of treatment." People, she says, "have continued to discriminate against those that suffer from these disorders."

The WHO campaign this year is entitled, "Stop exclusion - Dare to care." It aims not only to raise awareness about barriers to mental health but also about solutions that exist to address mental and brain disorders.


Bulgaria Moves To Stem HIV/AIDS

The Bulgarian Health Ministry has begun a national prevention-and-control program to check the spread of AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it.

Government statistics report 330 officially registered HIV/AIDS cases out of a total population of 8.3 million. However, many national and international experts fear the real number of infected people may be much higher.

Bulgaria has allocated $1.6 million for the initiative through 2002, and the total budget for the seven-year program is expected to reach $34 million. The Health Ministry developed the prevention and control regime with the help of consultants from the United Nations Development Program and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

According to the UN, young people are especially vulnerable to HIV. They will be the focus of prevention efforts. The other main targets are vulnerable populations such as the Roma minority, intravenous drug users, medical personnel, workers in the sex trade, and prison inmates.

Bulgarian Health Minister Ilko Semerdzhiev says the national prevention-and-control strategy demonstrates that Bulgaria has the political will to do what's necessary to combat HIV and AIDS.


Research Links High Blood Pressure To Air Pollution

German researchers say there appears to be a link between high blood pressure and air pollution, particularly among people who may already be at risk for heart disease.

In a study reported in the current issue of the "American Journal of Public Health," Angela Ibald-Mulli and colleagues reported on their study of 2,600 adults. The researchers, all from Germany's National Research Center for Environment and Health in Neuherberg, found that blood pressure rose along with levels of air pollution. The researchers speculated that pollution may affect the part of the central nervous system that controls blood pressure, indicating that high levels of pollution could increase a person's risk for heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems.


Expert Asserts Pollution Harms Poor And Minorities More Than Others

In a new report on a related theme, a U.S. government expert contends that air pollution and other environmental hazards cause a disproportionate amount of suffering among the poor and minorities.

Kenneth Olden, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, says, "poor people live and work in more hazardous environments," and are therefore more likely to experience greater exposure to hazards then the more affluent.

Olden spoke at a conference in California sponsored by the American Society of Toxicology. He said the U.S. is funding 16 different research programs looking into the connection between environmental hazards and illness. The institute is also studying the issue of health disparities between rich and poor, and among different ethnic groups.

Olden noted that the respiratory ailment asthma is far more prevalent among minority populations and urban residents. He says the rates of this disease are increasing too fast to be just a result of genetic causes. Olden says health disparities are due mainly to issues of environment and personal behavior, not genetics.