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Children's Usage of Heartburn Drugs Rises

The number of young children on prescription drugs for heartburn and other digestive problems rose about 56 percent in current years, and researchers say obesity and overuse may be contributing to the surprising increase.

The surge was found in a Medco Health Solutions Inc. analysis released Thursday of U. S. prescription data for 2002-06. It recommends more than 2 million U. S. children 18 and below used drugs for digestive or gastrointestinal complaints last year. It is an indication that something's going on that they need to keep an eye on, said Dr. Robert Epstein, Medco's chief medical officer.

"Whether its parents getting their children diagnosed more frequently, or obesity," or other factors, "it bears further study," he said.

Researchers at Medco, a pharmacy benefits Management Company based in Franklin Lakes, N. J., studied prescription drug claims of over 575,000 U. S. children.

They calculated that 557,259 infants and children up to age 4, or around 3 percent of youngsters in that age range, were taking these drugs last year. That's a 56 percent increase since 2002.

The analysis found that there was a 31 percent increase amongst children aged 5 to 11, climbing to an estimated 551,653 children, or 2 percent in that age group in 2006.

Nearly 1 million children age 12 to 18 had prescriptions for the drugs last year, although that was up only 6 percent over 2002.

The analysis said Acid-reducing drugs known as proton pump inhibitors are the most common medicines prescribed for GI problems. They are used for acid reflux associated with heartburn, and a related condition called gastro esophageal reflux disease or GERD.

Some of these, including Prevacid, were approved for use in children during the study period, which likely also contributed to the prescription surge, said Dr. Benjamin Gold, an Emory University specialist in children's digestive diseases.

Heartburn is a common problem of being overweight, and the surge occurred during the nation's rising obesity epidemic, said Dr. Renee Jenkins, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She noted that more than 10 percent of U. S. preschoolers and 30 percent of older children are considered overweight.

Gold said there is no hard data on how many children have acid reflux or GERD. However, there is some evidence that the numbers are increasing, and obesity possibly will be playing a role, he said.

Heartburn and acid reflux are also widespread in infants and young children. Lots outgrow it, and often drugs are not required, so the increase raises concerns about whether these drugs sometimes are being used unnecessarily, said Jenkins.



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