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Over-the-counter defibrillators?

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A federal panel considers today whether defibrillators should be sold like aspirin and other non-prescription remedies.

Automated external defibrillators, computerized devices that analyze a heartbeat and deliver a shock only to people who are clinically dead, have been proven by medical experts to be safe even in the hands of children. AEDs are credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.

A prescription is now required to buy one, but a Food and Drug Administration panel convenes today to decide whether the Philips HeartStart Home Defibrillator should be sold over the counter.

Jim Baum, 65, of Lodi, Calif., says yes. He noticed AEDs in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last year and asked a doctor friend to get him one for each of his three homes, including one in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In December, he and a friend, oral surgeon Bob Breckenridge, were there when Baum had a sudden cardiac arrest.

About 340,000 people suffer cardiac arrest each year outside hospitals. Most of the time they're at home. A USA TODAY analysis last year estimated that about 60,000 of these victims have an electrical short-circuit of the heart called ventricular fibrillation. It's easily treated with an AED. And that's what hit Baum.

Breckenridge was summoned by his wife, a nurse, and found Baum turning blue with froth in his mouth. He applied the AED, made by medical manufacturer Welch Allyn, which delivered a shock 17 seconds later. Baum awoke with no brain or heart damage. An ambulance arrived 20 minutes later.

Speed is key to survival. If a heart is not shocked within six minutes, research has shown, the patient most likely will not be saved. First responders rarely arrive within six minutes after a collapse, the USA TODAY investigation found.

A nationwide study found last year that twice as many lives were saved in buildings, malls and apartment complexes that have AEDs. A study is underway on home AEDs.

But advocates say anybody who has about $1,800 to spend on an AED should be allowed to get one without a prescription.

''The more we sell, the cheaper they will get,'' says Carl Morgan, a scientist at Philips Medical Systems who has worked for 12 years to make the HeartStart easy to use. ''That's the way electronics work.'' He's sure the HeartStart can ''gather dust'' for years and work perfectly.

Others are not. ''I have mixed feelings because along with the prescription comes medical oversight,'' says Rachel Moyer, an AED advocate who lost her son to cardiac arrest in 2000. AEDs provided by the Gregory Moyer Defibrillator Fund have saved lives at schools in New York and Pennsylvania. ''My fear is that if people can just buy them and store them, they won't do any good sitting in closets.''

Baum had pulled his AED out of a closet and installed the battery less than 24 hours before it was used to save his life.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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