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Health Highlights: Nov. 14, 2004

Bad Cold Blamed for Cheney's Illness; Heart Fine WHO Expects Pandemic Flu Vaccine Within a Year CDC Reports Milder West Nile Season Dioxin Scare Prompts Probe Into French Fry Maker Critic Disinvited to FDA Painkiller Meeting

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

Bad Cold Blamed for Cheney's Illness; Heart Fine

Vice President Dick Cheney was sent home from the hospital Saturday after doctors determined that a nasty cold, and not a recurring heart problem, was responsible for his shortness of breath.

"I feel fine," Cheney told reporters as he left George Washington University Hospital after undergoing three hours of tests. He entered and departed the hospital under his own power.

Cheney's cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan S. Reiner, issued a statement saying that the tests had ruled out "any cardiac cause for the vice president's symptoms," according to the Washington Post. "The vice president likely has a viral, upper respiratory infection."

His spokeswoman, Mary Matalin, said Cheney went to the hospital because of his long history of heart trouble, which includes four heart attacks -- the first when he was 37 years old -- and a pacemaker that was implanted in 2001. Earlier this year, doctors reported that the pacemaker was working fine. The tests were performed "out of an abundance of caution," the Post quotes her as saying.

Cheney 63, just finished a grueling re-election campaign that had him on the road a good deal of the year.

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WHO Expects Pandemic Flu Vaccine Within a Year

With the right mixture of money and commitment, scientists could deliver a candidate vaccine to combat worldwide flu outbreaks within a year, the World Health Organization says.

Health experts stress that the world is overdue for the next influenza pandemic, and in the wake of SARS and bird flu epidemics. They have taken advantage of the publicity surrounding those outbreaks in the last year to make preparedness a priority, according to the Associated Press.

In the past, flu pandemics have hit so fast that scientists didn't have a chance to keep up with them. But surveillance of the virus has become good enough to enable health officials to come up with a vaccine fast enough to at least limit a pandemic's path of destruction, according to the AP account.

About 50 WHO scientists met this week to devise a strategy to make a pandemic vaccine -- and make it quickly. One obstacle is money: They say it would cost $13 million per vaccine to get it through the manufacturing and licensing process, the wire service reports.

Rich countries need to chip in to the process. "It is not only possible, but also important, that influenza pandemic vaccines be made available," Klaus Stohr, coordinator of the global influenza program at the WHO, told the AP. "And there's a shared responsibility needed to make that happen."

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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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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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