Health Highlights: July 17, 2009

Hepatitis C Investigation Is Widened Pope Breaks Wrist in a Fall Praise for NIH Pick Widespread, But Not Unanimous Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Hepatitis C Investigation Is Widened

An investigation into the spread of the hepatitis C virus by a Colorado hospital worker has been expanded to two other states -- New York and Texas -- where the woman previously worked, the Associated Press reported.

According to Colorado officials, the woman, reportedly addicted to painkillers, took syringes filled with fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller, from operating room carts and replaced them with used syringes filled with saline solution. The action is believed to have contaminated not only the swapped syringes but the containers of saline solution, the AP said.

Because of this, the AP said, as many as 6,000 people who had surgery at two medical centers in Denver and Colorado Springs might have been exposed to hepatitis C, and surgical patients at hospitals in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and Houston might have been similarly exposed. The woman reportedly worked in those communities from 2005 to 2008, though it is unclear whether she was infected with hepatitis C at that time.

The woman is being held without bond in Colorado, where a federal grand jury is investigating the claim that she switched the needles despite knowing that she had hepatitis C, the news service said.


Pope Breaks Wrist in a Fall

Pope Benedict XVI broke his right wrist when he fell Friday while on vacation in northern Italy.

According to the Vatican, the Pope, who is 82, fell during the night but ate breakfast and celebrated Mass before going to a local hospital, the BBC News reported. There, under local anesthesia, he had an operation to repair the break.

The Pope has been vacationing in the Valle d'Aosta region and staying at a chalet in the village of Les Combes, the news service said.


Praise for NIH Pick Widespread, But Not Unanimous

Dr. Francis S. Collins, nominated to lead the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is respected by top scientists and research organizations, but praise for President Barack Obama's choice to direct the mammoth health agency isn't universal, The New York Times reported.

While Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, called Collins "an extraordinary scientist and one of the nicest guys you could ever meet," others privately told the newspaper that they're worried about Collins' near-evangelistic embrace of religion.

Numerous times, he has publicly recounted his conversion to Christianity as a medical student in his late 20s, the Times reported. More recently, Collins penned a book called "The Language of God."

Others take issue with his leadership of the NIH's Human Genome Project. While Collins was lauded in 2003 when the program succeeded in its goal to map the billions of base pairs that comprise human DNA, some have soured on the accomplishment, saying it hasn't led to "an array of promising medical interventions," the Times reported.

Collins shouldn't shoulder blame for the genetic research industry's failure to come up with quick medical breakthroughs, the newspaper said, adding, "He played an important role in raising expectations impossibly high." Other critics cited the "extraordinary" cost of the project, the Times reported.

Collins has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale and a medical degree from the University of North Carolina. His confirmation by the U.S. Senate appears likely, the Times said.

The NIH, the world's primary source of medical research funding, is slated to distribute some $37 billion in research grants and spend $4 billion on its own research programs over the next 14 months, the newspaper said.


Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts

The United States could find itself short of swine flu vaccine if the virus becomes much more lethal and countries start to scramble for more of the vaccine, experts warn.

They noted that the United States makes only 20 percent of the flu vaccines it uses. The situation is even worse in Britain, which imports all its flu vaccines. Only a few countries are self-sufficient in vaccines.

"This isn't rocket science. If there is more severe disease, countries will want to hang onto the vaccine for their own citizens," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Associated Press.

Leaders of countries with adequate supplies of swine flu vaccine won't be willing to share with other nations, experts predict.

"Pandemic vaccine will be a valuable and scarce resource, like oil or food during a famine," David Fidler, an Indiana University law professor who has consulted for the World Health Organization, told the AP. "We've seen how countries behave in those situations, and it's not encouraging."

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