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Health Highlights: Nov. 13, 2004

Cheney in Hospital for Shortness of Breath CDC Reports Milder West Nile Season Dioxin Scare Prompts Probe Into French Fry Maker Ford, GM Plan to Make SUVs Safer Pain Doctor Stumbles Onto 'Orgasmatron' Critic Disinvited to FDA Painkiller Meeting

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

Cheney in Hospital for Shortness of Breath

Vice President Dick Cheney was undergoing tests at a hospital in Washington, D.C., on Saturday after experiencing what aides called a bout with shortness of breath.

Cheney entered George Washington University for the exams, and White House communications director Dan Bartlett said it was unknown if the episodes had anything to do with a cold Cheney has been suffering from, CNN reported. He entered the hospital under his own power, according to CBS News.

It was recommended that Cheney undergo the examinations because of his long history of heart trouble. Cheney, who is 63, suffered his first heart attack at age 37, and has had three since.

He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1988, had a coronary stent implanted in November 2000, and he has had a pacemaker since 2001. In May, his doctors gave him a clean bill of health, reporting no problems with the pacemaker, according to CNN.

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CDC Reports Milder West Nile Season

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the United States is experiencing a relatively mild season for West Nile virus after two record-breaking years.

The Associated Press reports that the mosquito-borne virus has killed 77 people and sickened 2,282 thus far this year. At this time last year, there were 8,219 illnesses and 182 deaths, according to CDC data. Overall in 2003, the virus infected 9,858 people, killing 284. There were 4,156 cases and 284 deaths in 2002.

West Nile was first detected in New York in 1999. While the virus has spared the Northeast this year, it became more active in two Western states that saw little activity in the past. California reported 737 cases and 20 deaths, while and Arizona had 381 cases and 10 deaths, according to the AP account.

Dr. Ned Hayes, a CDC West Nile expert, told the wire service that it's unknown why the numbers declined. Temperature, rainfall and prevention could be factors, Hayes said. "The use of preventive measures by people in terms of insect repellent, also the community approaches to reduce the abundance of mosquitoes makes a difference, too," he told the AP. "We are still learning about the epidemiology and ecology of West Nile transmission."

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Dioxin Scare Prompts Probe Into French Fry Maker

Dutch health officials are investigating a factory owned the world's largest manufacturer of frozen french fries in the wake of a dioxin outbreak that has prompted the quarantining of nearly 200 farms, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the ministry of agriculture told Agence France Presse said the investigation's aim is to make sure that the company, McCain Foods, Ltd., was observing food safety regulations. Traces of dioxin, a powerful carcinogen, were found in potato peelings sold for cattle feed, according to the AFP account.

The contamination was traced to marl clay from Germany used in the manufacturing process, the wire service said.

The Dutch agriculture ministry said 88 farms were able to open on Friday, but 103 continued to be quarantined until test results are obtained, according to AFP.

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Ford, GM Plan to Make SUVs Safer

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have announced plans to employ new technology that should prevent sports-utility vehicles (SUVs) from rolling over as often as they do.

The world's two largest automakers said they plan to roll out the technology, called electronic stability control, by the end of next year on 1.8 million vehicles, the Washington Post reported.

The companies readily adopted the technology after government and insurance industry tests showed huge safety increases, especially for SUVs that ride high and are more prone to rolling over during an accident, the newspaper reported.

The technology uses sensors to automatically hit the brakes or cut engine power to prevent loss of driver control. The Post reported that the sensors could reduce single-vehicle crashes by 41 percent, citing a study released last month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Nearly a third of all U.S. traffic accidents, and 60 percent of fatal accidents, are single-vehicle crashes, according to government statistics. Many of those crashes are rollovers involving SUVs or pickup trucks, the Post reported.

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Pain Doctor Stumbles Onto 'Orgasmatron'

Woody Allen may have been 31 years ahead of his time -- or 169 years behind, depending on which way you look at it.

In his 1973 film Sleeper, Allen wakes up from an operation to 200 years in the future. Among the strange devices in this new world is an "orgasmatron," a machine that delivers instant sexual pleasure.

Dr. Stuart Meloy, an anesthesiologist and pain specialist in Winston-Salem, N.C., may have stumbled onto an "orgasmatron" of his own, ABC News reports.

Meloy was putting an electrode into the spine of a female patient with chronic back pain when the woman reported a decrease in her pain and an unusual side effect: "She let out a moan and began hyperventilating," he told Good Morning America. "Once she caught her breath, she said, 'You're gonna have to teach my husband how to do that.' "

The device, called a spinal cord stimulator, is meant to treat stubborn pain. But now, "we're treating orgasmic dysfunction," Meloy said. In a small study on 11 women, many of whom never achieved orgasm, the success rate was 91 percent, he told the network.

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Critic Disinvited to FDA Painkiller Meeting

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it plans to convene a panel of experts in February to discuss the safety of painkillers in the same class as the now-withdrawn drug Vioxx, but one member of the panel was asked not to come.

The doctor, a member of the panel, had his invitation rescinded after he announced the results of a study finding that Bextra, a painkiller similar to Vioxx, may also be unsafe.

The arthritis advisory committee should get a mound of paper to consider before the meeting, including unpublished studies and new results of long-term trials, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The prime question that an avalanche of test results may not completely answer, however, is whether other painkillers called cox-2 inhibitors may cause the increased risks of heart attack and stroke that led Merck & Co. to withdraw Vioxx in September.

Other cox-2 drugs include the Pfizer medications Celebrex and Bextra, which have been marketed as being kinder on the stomach than traditional painkillers.

However, a new study whose results were released at an American Heart Association meeting this week found that Bextra users with heart disease had double the risk of heart attack and stroke as nonusers. Pfizer dismissed the study's "unsubstantiated conclusions" that had not been independently reviewed, the AP said.

Dr. Curt D. Furberg, a professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and an author of that study, told the Wall Street Journal that he was disinvited to the February meeting based on what he had said. Furberg is a member of that committee. An FDA official told the paper that it wasn't unusual for someone with a potential conflict to be asked not to participate.

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