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Bird Flu Threat Tops Health News for '05

Painkiller controversies, Hurricane Katrina and Terri Schiavo were other big stories

THURSDAY, Dec. 29, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- It has yet to sicken a single American, but the potential for a bird flu virus pandemic riveted the attention of health officials and ordinary people in 2005, making it the year's top health news story.

The deadly H5N1 virus has so far failed to mutate so that it could spread easily from human to human -- and it might not do so. But a U.S. government report this fall warned that a pandemic involving such a mutation could kill 1.9 million Americans, sicken 90 million more, and cost the nation more than $450 billion.

Soon after that report was leaked to the press in late October, the Bush administration announced a $7.1 billion strategy to boost disease surveillance and readiness and stockpile 20 million doses of vaccine, plus another 20 million doses of antivirals such as Tamiflu.

Experts believe 70 people, all in Asia, have so far died from bird-to-human H5N1 infection worldwide.

Other top health stories for 2005, as determined by HealthDay editors:

NSAID Painkiller Troubles Continue. The withdrawal of Merck's cox-2 inhibitor Vioxx topped 2004's health news list, and in 2005 these safety concerns widened to taint most non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) except aspirin. A second cox-2, Pfizer's Bextra, was pulled from drugstore shelves in April after long-term use was linked to cardiovascular dangers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed the third cox-2, Pfizer's Celebrex, to remain on the market, albeit with a strong "black-box" warning label detailing cardiovascular risks.

Over-the-counter, non-cox-2-specific NSAIDs were on shaky ground, too. A Norwegian study found analgesics like ibuprofen and naproxen (Aleve) boosted heart woes over the long-term, and earlier this month the Cleveland Clinic announced it would launch a large-scale investigation of those drugs plus Celebrex.

Scandal has dogged much of the research. In December, the New England Journal of Medicine charged that Vioxx researchers omitted important data on heart risks from a 2000 study published in the journal. And experts have noted that the upcoming Cleveland Clinic trial is funded by Pfizer, which makes Celebrex.

Government Involvement in Private Health Issues. The plight of 41-year-old brain-dead Terri Schiavo held the nation spellbound early this year, as her family's private struggle to decide her fate played out in the media and the office of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Bush used various legal moves to keep Schiavo attached to her feeding tube, and on Capitol Hill similar last-minute attempts at legislation proved unsuccessful. Schiavo died March 31, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed, in accordance with what her husband said were Shiavo's wishes.

Questions about interference of government in private health decisions cropped up again in late August, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration postponed indefinitely any decision on moving the Plan B "morning-after" contraceptive pill to over-the-counter status. The delay, which came despite evidence from the FDA's own scientists that the pregnancy-preventing pill was safe and effective, prompted the resignation of the director of the agency's Office of Women's Health, Dr. Susan Wood. A week later, a New England Journal of Medicine editorial labeled the FDA's decision "political meddling in the drug-approval process."

Hurricane Katrina. Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, leaving more than 1,300 dead and thousands of evacuees still displaced months later. In the chaotic days and weeks following the storm, homeless residents were housed in fetid conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome before being evacuated elsewhere.

Hospitals in the city were left in a desperate state -- flooded, lacking electricity and clean water, with many patients dying as they awaited rescue. While worries about widespread water-borne disease proved unfounded, toxic mold now covers a majority of flood-affected homes, and a recent report found that more than half of Louisiana residents suffer from depression.

Boom in Stem Cell Discovery. It was a watershed year for research involving stem cells, the "progenitor" cells that might be used to repair and replace diseased tissue. An ill Japanese man whose only other option was a heart transplant appeared to benefit from stem cells taken from his own bone marrow, while researchers in Paris used a mouse's stem cells to repair a sheep's heart -- the first such cross-species procedure. In other research, stem cells also restored fertility to mouse ovaries, and new technologies suggest that science might circumvent the need for embryonic stem cells.

Use of those cells was hotly debated by the U.S. Congress, which postponed till 2006 legislation that would ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research -- a move President Bush has sworn to veto. And in South Korea, stem cell pioneer researcher Hwang Woo-suk ended the year by resigning from his university after experts determined he had faked stem cell lines used to produce what he had claimed were the world's first cloned human embryos.

The Bad and Good Cancer News. Cancer emerged this year as the No. 1 killer for Americans under the age of 85, overtaking heart disease. But the year was marked also by significant progress against various forms of the disease: two new vaccines against the virus that causes cervical cancer; Herceptin's effectiveness against tough-to-treat breast malignancies; and effective, targeted therapies for lung, colon and stomach cancers.

Medicare's Drug Benefit Debuts to Confusion. Set to kick in New Year's Day, Medicare's long-awaited "Plan D" drug benefit program appears to have a major public-relations problem on its hands, with seniors forced to choose from up to 60 competing plans, depending on their locale. While everyone agrees the plan could save seniors thousands of dollars in drug costs, a survey released in November found that low-income elderly -- who are most likely to benefit from Plan D -- are the least likely to understand it.

Women's Health Highlights. The FDA again took center stage this summer, granting "approvable letters" to two manufacturers -- Mentor Corp. and Inamed Corp. -- for the return to market of silicone gel breast implants. The devices had been banned since 1992, after thousands of recipients blamed them for a variety of health woes. Criticism over the ruling -- which usually precedes full FDA approval -- was swift, with the National Organization of Women pressing for an investigation into the decision.

In a breakthrough in reproductive health, an Israeli woman left infertile by chemotherapy became the first to conceive and give birth to a healthy baby after receiving a transplant of her own, previously frozen ovarian tissue. In the United States, an infertile 24-year-old woman gave birth to a baby girl in June after receiving a transplanted ovary from her identical twin sister.

Breakthroughs on the Horizon. In June, the FDA approved the heart failure drug BiDil, the first-ever medication geared toward a specific race -- in this case, blacks. Research also suggests that an experimental vaccine (NicVax) might help "immunize" smokers from craving nicotine. And earlier this month, a French woman became the first person to undergo a successful partial face transplant -- similar, controversial, operations are planned for patients in the United States and Great Britain.

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