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Health Highlights: May 25, 2005

House Approves Stem Cell Research Bill Four More Deaths Linked to Rodent-borne Virus Experts: World Unprepared for Flu Pandemic Houston Woman Gives Birth to Identical Quadruplets FDA Probes Defibrillator Flaw

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

House Approves Stem Cell Research Bill

Setting up a showdown between Congress and the White House, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would expand federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research.

An identical bill has widespread bipartisan support in the Senate. In fact, soon after the House vote, the Senate sponsors urged Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to put the bill up for a quick vote, the Associated Press reported.

President Bush, a staunch opponent of abortion, has promised to veto any bill for embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of embryos. The House vote, 238-to-194 with 50 Republicans in favor, fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a veto. Bush has never exercised his veto power while in office, The New York Times reported.

Supporters of stem cell research say federal funding would advance research for treatments and perhaps even cures for diseases ranging from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to diabetes. The work involves research and manipulation of days-old embryos, a process that destroys them. Backers say the embryos would have been discarded anyway.

Opponents contend there's no proof that embryonic stem cell research will lead to cures for any disease. They add that taxpayers should not be forced to finance science that they see as an attack on unborn babies and Bush's "culture of life," according to the AP.

Supporters of the House vote, which followed intense lobbying by advocates for patients, included Nancy Reagan, who became a strong backer of stem cell research after her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, struggled with Alzheimer's disease, the Times reported.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the bill's chief Democratic sponsor, said Tuesday, "The American people cannot afford to wait any longer for our top scientists to realize the full potential of stem cell research."

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania and one of the Senate's staunchest opponents of abortion, said he was "disheartened" by the House vote, but pleased by Bush's threat of a veto, the AP said.

"Government should encourage lifesaving research, but should focus on science that both works and is ethical," he said.

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Four More Deaths Linked to Rodent-borne Virus

Four more transplant patient deaths linked to the rodent-borne lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) have come to light following the report of the deaths of three transplant patients in New England, the Associated Press reported.

Wisconsin officials reported Tuesday that they believe the same virus caused the deaths of four transplant patients in 2003.

On Monday, Rhode Island and Massachusetts health officials said they were investigating the deaths of three people who received organs from a donor whose pet hamster tested positive for LCMV. A fourth transplant patient is believed to be recovering, the AP reported.

As a result of these cases, doctors are being urged to closely monitor patients who've had transplants or blood transfusions.

In addition, the Rhode Island Department of Health warned that the virus appears to have been transmitted through urine or feces of the infected hamster, which was bought at a Petsmart store in Warwick. More than 100 hamsters, guinea pigs and mice from that store have been euthanized and sent to be tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. David R. Gifford, Rhode Island's director of health, added in a prepared statement, "Because LCMV infection has been associated with miscarriage and neurological illness in the newborn, we are taking the precaution of advising pregnant women in the first and second trimester of pregnancy to avoid exposure to rodent urine or feces -- including household pets such as hamsters."

The Petsmart chain has asked its suppliers to check their stocks of pet rodents for LCMV. In healthy people, the virus causes only flu-like symptoms. But transplant patients take large doses of immune-suppressing drugs, which makes them more vulnerable.

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Experts: World Unprepared for Flu Pandemic

The all-but-certain global bird flu pandemic that some world health officials have warned about for months would infect more than a billion people, a group of leading scientists predicted Wednesday in a series of articles published in the journal Nature.

The experts said world leaders have largely ignored the threat posed by the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu that has already begun migrating to people in Southeast Asia. At least 50 people have already died from the disease in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Health officials worry that this form of bird flu will combine with a human strain of the disease, rendering existing human vaccines ineffective.

The resulting pandemic could affect at least 20 percent of the world's population, hospitalize 30 million people, and kill more than 7 million, according to an account of the Nature articles by the London Times.

Only a well-coordinated global plan to head-off the disease stands a chance of avoiding a world catastrophe, the newspaper report said of the scientists' beliefs.

The world is due for another flu pandemic, health experts say. The last one took place in 1968 and killed a million people. The worst influenza outbreak on record in 1918-1919 may have caused as many as 50 million deaths from what's now known as "Spanish flu," the newspaper said.

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Houston Woman Gives Birth to Identical Quadruplets

It may be confusing enough to give birth to two babies who look exactly alike, but how about four?

A Houston woman faces that prospect after delivering a rare set of identical quadruplets -- among fewer than 50 sets ever recorded, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The babies were born two months ago, three months prematurely. Daphne, Chloe, Bonnie, and Adele Breedlove each weighed between 2 and 2 1/2 pounds at birth.

Their mother says she'll use homemade ankle bracelets to tell the girls apart, the wire service said.

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FDA Probes Defibrillator Flaw

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started questioning Indianapolis-based Guidant Corp. about its delay in disclosing a design flaw in one of its implantable heart defibrillators that the company knew about for three years.

Guidant only told doctors about the flaw earlier this week, prompting criticism that the company withheld information that was important to patient care, the Indianapolis Star reported.

The one-page advisory that arrived in doctors' offices on Tuesday said that one patient had died and 25 others needed replacements because of a defect in the Prizm 2 defibrillator that caused the defibrillator to short-circuit and stop working.

About 37,000 Prizm 2 defibrillators have been implanted in heart patients around the world. Guidant's letter to doctors does not recommend replacement of the Prizm 2 units with new models.

FDA spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn told the Star that the agency wants "to find out all of the elements of this particular situation." She refused to provide any information on the line of FDA questioning or how long it may take to investigate the situation.

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