The Department of Health and Human Services announced plans yesterday to use radio advertisements and warning labels to alert parents to the possible dangers of using aspirin to treat children with flu and chicken pox.
Secretary Richard S. Schweiker said the department would ask radio stations to air public service announcements about the risk of contracting Reye's Syndrome, a rare disease that can cause comas, nervous system damage and even death in children before this fall's flu season begins. But warning labels on the products themselves are not expected to appear until at least next spring, HHS officials acknowledged.
The aspirin industry, which has been lobbying heavily against any action, attacked the proposal as "inappropriate" and urged Schweiker to reconsider.
The aspirin alert was announced at a House Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing where Schweiker was grilled on a laundry-list of HHS health activities.
Responding to questions from subcommittee members, the former Pennsylania senator and congressman also said:
* He is "personally" opposed to a means test for Medicare health care benefits for the elderly.
* He will not withdraw a controversial proposal to deregulate the nursing home industry by allowing more "flexibility" in inspections by state survey and certification agencies. However, he said he was "open" to suggestions from Congress. He said the proposal will help "target our resources" by inspecting the "bad guys" more frequently than the current annual inspection while cutting back on the inspection of nursing homes in compliance with the law.
* He will investigate Commerce subcommittee staff charges that government development of an infant formula quality-control regulation involved a consultant who had previously been employed by one of the major manufacturers of this product. A staff report released yesterday contended that the regulation completed last April bore little resemblance to the original proposal by the Carter Administration and charged that the Reagan administration "adopted, virtually in every respect, the suggestions of the infant formula industry to relax the proposed rules and add 'flexibility.' "
Schweiker, who was sued last spring by consumer groups for failing to warn about aspirin and Reye's syndrome, announced early last June that a warning label would be required.
He said yesterday his department was launching the "public awareness program" about the possible risks of aspirin using radio announcements prepared by the government and other devices "because label changes take time" and "we have to alert parents as quickly as possible."
In addition to aspirin, many common over-the-counter and prescription drugs, including some cough and cold remedies, contain salicylates, which are the primary ingredient in aspirin. Salicylates have been linked to the development of Reye's syndrome in children under 16 with chicken pox, influenza and flu-like illnesses.
The mysterious disease strikes as many as 1,200 children each year, starting with vomiting and progressing to coma and death in over 20 percent of the cases and permanent brain damage in others.
HHS spokesmen said that the decision to require a warning label has not yet been approved by the White House and said it could be a few weeks, at best, before a Federal Register proposal is published. A public comment period of 30 days is expected and once a final rule is completed, companies would be given 90 days to change their labels.
Congressmen at yesterday's hearing generally praised the aspirin action, although Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) questioned why the warning had been delayed since last June's initial decision to require it.
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, head of the Ralph Nader-founded Health Research Group, charged that "more children will die or be injured" without the warning label this year.
But Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) criticized Schweiker's action as "premature," given the scientific controversy over whether aspirin is really the culprit in Reye's Syndrome. Four recent studies show that children with Reye's Syndrome are more likely to have taken aspirin-containing drugs for symptoms of flu and chicken pox than those who escaped the disease.