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Health Highlights: July 21, 2009

Worldwide Death Toll From Swine Flu Surpasses 700: WHO Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts Experimental Lupus Drug Shows Some Promise: Report Praise for NIH Pick Widespread, But Not Unanimous

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

Worldwide Death Toll From Swine Flu Surpasses 700: WHO

The global death toll from the H1N1 swine flu outbreak has now surpassed 700, according to the World Health Organization, an increase of some 300 deaths since the start of the month, the Associated Press reported.

But the WHO says it doesn't know how many cases there are worldwide because it stopped asking countries to report infections last week. Instead, the agency is focusing on countries reporting infection outbreaks for the first time.

WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi said the Geneva, Switzerland-based agency is examining various measures that countries can take to slow the spread of the disease. School closures could be among the recommendations, but it's up to each country to consider appropriate steps for their situations, the AP said.

Health officials worldwide say that infections with H1N1 swine flu continue to be mild for the most part, with patients recovering quickly.

In the United States, there have been 40,617 cases of infection and 263 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now updates its figures once a week, on Fridays.

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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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Experimental Lupus Drug Shows Some Promise: Report

An experimental drug for the autoimmune disease lupus has produced favorable results in a company-sponsored study. It could potentially become the first new drug for lupus in 50 years, USA Today reported.

The drug, Benlysta, helps to limit the immune system response that attacks lupus patients' tissues, often damaging vital organs.

Each of the 865 patients in the preliminary study were given standard therapy for lupus, which consists primarily of treatment with steroids. The researchers found that 52 percent of patients on a low dose of Benlysta and 58 percent of those receiving a high dose of the drug, in tandem with the standard therapy, experienced significant improvement, compared with 43 percent of those taking standard therapy and a placebo, USA Today reported.

Also, more Benlysta patients were able to reduce their dose of steroid, and with it the bloating and other side effects of steroid use, company officials said.

"All of the investigators we've shown [these results to] are just thrilled. They haven't had a good clinical trials result in years. Lupus patients should have some hope, too," said David Stump of Human Genome Sciences Inc., which developed the drug with GlaxoSmithKline.

Stump said the company plans to release the study results at a scientific meeting later this year, USA Today said.

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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.

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