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HEALTH REPORT - March 5, 2003: Ephedra - 2003-03-04

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Officials in the United States have warned against the use of products that contain the Chinese plant ephedra. Many people who buy these products hope to lose weight or gain strength.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called for new warnings on ephedra products. The warnings would say that heart attacks, strokes, seizures and deaths have been reported. Mister Thompson also suggested that he might seek to ban these products.

Manufacturers say the products are safe when used as directed. The industry estimates that, in nineteen-ninety-nine, about twelve-million people in the United States used ephedra.

Ephedra is a traditional herb also called ma huang. The active substance in it is a stimulant called ephedrine. A stimulant increases energy in the body.

Last Friday, federal health officials released a report by Rand, the policy and research organization. The report says the few studies done on the effects of ephedrine on athletic performance found almost no improvement. It says there is evidence that such products may increase short-term weight loss. But the Rand report says this evidence is limited, and no long-term studies have been done.

The early release of the report followed the death last month of a pitcher in Major League baseball. Steve Bechler of the Baltimore Orioles was twenty-three years old. He suffered heatstroke during training in Florida. Heatstroke can stop the body’s organs. Mister Bechler had exercised in high temperatures. He had also been taking ephedrine. A medical examiner said this played a part in the heatstroke, but was not the only cause.

The International Olympic Committee and several professional sports organizations ban ephedra products. After Mister Bechler died, North American baseball banned them in its minor leagues but not the majors, at least for now.

United States law says new drugs must be proven safe and effective. But current law does not consider products like ephedra as drugs. Instead, they are called dietary supplements -- food aids. More than half of Americans take supplements including vitamins and minerals. The government, though, limits marketing claims. These products must say they are not meant to treat, cure or prevent any disease.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Jerilyn Watson.