Health Highlights: March 3, 2004

Childhood Meningitis Vaccine Shortage Reported Researchers Retract Controversial Vaccination-Autism Study Nerve Block Reduces Pancreatic Cancer Pain New Heroin Aimed at Middle-Class Americans McDonald's Dumps Supersized Fries and Drinks Neil Simon Gets New Kidney

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

Childhood Meningitis Vaccine Shortage Reported

A shortage of a vaccine that protects children against pneumococcal diseases such as meningitis and blood infections has prompted U.S. health officials to recommend that doctors temporarily suspend the last two doses of the vaccine's four-dose regimen.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the request to ensure the country does not run out of the vaccine Prevnar.

"CDC is concerned anytime children are not able to receive all of the recommended doses of a recommended vaccine. Delaying the third and fourth doses of this important vaccine is not ideal; however, it is important to take steps to assure all children receive some protection with at least two doses of vaccine," Dr. Steve Cochi, acting director of the CDC's National Immunization Program, said Tuesday in a prepared statement.

He said children whose third and fourth doses are delayed should be given their delayed doses on their first visit to a doctor after supplies of Prevnar return to normal.

The CDC says children at increased risk of severe disease should continue to receive the full, routine, four-dose series.

Wyeth Vaccines is the sole manufacturer of Prevnar in the United States. Production problems have resulted in a shortage of the vaccine. Widespread shortages may continue into the autumn, according to a CDC news release.

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Researchers Retract Controversial Vaccination-Autism Study

A retraction has been issued by 10 of the 12 authors of a controversial 1998 study that claimed a link between the triple childhood vaccination for mumps, rubella and measles (MMR) and autism.

The retraction was published in this week's issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, which published the original study.

"We wish to make it clear that in this paper no casual link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient. However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health," the scientists wrote in their retraction.

"In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon these findings in the paper, according to precedent," they wrote.

The conclusions contained in the 1998 study caused many parents to resist vaccinations for their children.

Last month, Lancet editor Dr. Richard Horton issued an apology for publishing the study. Horton said the journal editors weren't informed by the researchers that they were being funded by a legal aid service looking into whether families could sue over immunizations.

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Nerve Block Reduces Pancreatic Cancer Pain

A nerve block technique called neurolytic celiac plexus block offers more pain relief than morphine and other painkillers for people with pancreatic cancer, says a Mayo Clinic study.

The study of 100 people with advanced pancreatic cancer found that patients treated with the nerve block reported a pain reduction of more than 50 percent. Patients on morphine and other medications experienced pain reduction of about 27 percent, BBC News Online reports.

The Mayo researchers also found that the nerve block provided pain relief for several months. The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The nerve block is an injection that consists of a local anesthetic, steroids and alcohol. It reduces pain by paralyzing the nerves surrounding the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer causes severe pain. This finding could help people with terminal pancreatic cancer to be more comfortable during the remainder of their lives, the study authors say.

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New Heroin Aimed at Middle-Class Americans

High-purity heroin that can be smoked instead of injected is being targeted at middle-class Americans, warns a United Nations drug agency report released Wednesday.

Drug producers and traffickers are pushing this kind of drug to appeal to Americans who are put off by the thought of injecting drugs, says the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) report. The INCB is an independent U.N. body that tracks the global drug situation.

"This shows how the illicit market operates in a very smart way by selling a drug to a new class of users by telling them, 'Use it in a different way and you won't become addicted,' " INCB member Rainer Wolfgang Schmid told the Associated Press.

He also said drug dealers have many intelligent methods to sustain their drug production and business.

The INCB report also says drug dealers use the Internet to directly market controlled substances to vulnerable people, including those who want to get prescription drugs without having to see a doctor and users who are addicted to numerous drugs.

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McDonald's Dumps Supersized Fries and Drinks

Fast-food giant McDonald's is eliminating supersized fries and drinks from its menu.

The company announced Tuesday that it has started phasing out those supersize menu items in its more than 13,000 U.S. outlets. They'll be off the menu altogether by the end of the year but will return for promotions, the Associated Press reports.

McDonald's says it made the cuts in order to trim its menu.

"The driving force here was menu simplification. The fact of the matter is not very many Supersize fries are sold," company spokesman Walt Riker said.

McDonald's and other fast-food companies in the United States have been under pressure to provide more healthy food choices. Several highly publicized yet unsuccessful lawsuits contended that McDonald's' giant servings contributed to obesity among some customers.

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Neil Simon Gets New Kidney

Playwright Neil Simon is recovering at a New York City hospital after he received a new kidney Tuesday from his friend and longtime press representative Bill Evans.

"Everything is excellent," Simon's wife, Elaine Simon, told The New York Times.

Simon, 76, has been plagued by kidney problems for several years. Before the transplant, he'd been receiving dialysis treatment three times a week.

Evans, 53, who has been the publicist for many of Simon's plays, had a number of tests to ensure his kidney would be suitable for Simon.

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