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Health Highlights: Dec. 4, 2014

U.S. Births Fall for 6th Straight Year Proposed Meningitis Outbreak Compensation Fund Boosted by $35 Million More Americans Have Insurance Through Obamacare: Survey New Drug for Spinal Damage Shows Promise Drug-Resistant Infections Among Newborns in India Pose Worldwide Threat U.S. Health Care Worker Arriving From West Africa May Have Ebola

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

U.S. Births Fall for 6th Straight Year

Births in the United Stated declined for the sixth year in a row last year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

There were 3.93 million births in 2013, down from 3.95 million in 2012 and a nine percent decrease from the high in 2007, The New York Times reported.

The general fertility rate - the average number of children women ages 15 to 44 have over a lifetime -- fell to a record low of 1.86 babies per woman in 2013. That's well below the 2.1 babies per woman required for a stable population.

In 2013, there were 62.5 births for every 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, compared with 63 in 2012. That decrease is particularly noteworthy because the number of women in their prime childbearing years, ages 20 to 39, has been rising since 2007, The Times reported.

Birthrates for teens and women in their 20s have been declining, while births among older women are increasing. Women older than 44 are not included in the general fertility rate, but there has been a 14 percent rise in births to women ages 45 to 49.

Twin births are becoming more common and now account for about one in every 30 babies, according to the report. Both preterm births and cesarean-section deliveries are dropping.

White women once had the highest c-section rates, but have had the largest decline and now have the lowest rate. Black women now have the highest c-section rate, while the rate among Hispanic women -- who previously had the lowest rate -- is now slightly higher than among white women, The Times reported.


Proposed Meningitis Outbreak Compensation Fund Boosted by $35 Million

The amount of a proposed fund for victims of a meningitis outbreak linked to the New England Compounding Pharmacy has been increased by about $35 million.

A new agreement filed Wednesday with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Massachusetts calls for a fund of at least $135 million to compensate people who became ill and relatives of those who died, according to court-appointed bankruptcy trustee Paul Moore, the Associated Press reported.

The nationwide outbreak sickened more than 750 people in 20 states and more than 64 people died. It was blamed on a tainted steroid produced by the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass.

An earlier settlement called for a fund of more than $100 million, including $50 million for the owners of the now-closed company.

The new agreement must be approved by a judge, the AP reported.


More Americans Have Insurance Through Obamacare: Survey

About 10.6 million Americans got health insurance coverage between September 2013 and September 2014, and the rate of uninsured people fell from 17.7 percent to 12.4 percent, according to a survey by the Urban Institute.

It said the increase in insured people is in large part due to new health insurance exchanges and the expansion of Medicaid in a number of states. Others may have insurance from their workplace under stricter new rules about who must be covered, NBC News reported.

"The survey findings show that uninsured adults ages 18 to 64 gained coverage across all age, gender, race and ethnicity groups," the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said in a statement. The foundation helped fund the study.

Nearly seven million people have signed up for private insurance over the past year and about nine million are expected to do so this year, according to the Obama administration. So far this year, 765,000 people have signed up and about half are new enrollees, NBC News reported.


New Drug for Spinal Damage Shows Promise

A new drug to treat spinal cord damage shows promise in animal tests, researchers say.

The drug is designed to help establish connections between nerve cells on either side of where the spinal cord is damaged, NBC News reported.

The injectable drug was given to 26 rats with spinal cord damage and led 21 of them to regain either some movement in their back legs and/or control of their bladder, according to the study in the journal Nature.

"This recovery is unprecedented," team leader Jerry Silver, a neuroscience professor at Case Western Reserve University, told NBC News reported.

"Our animals are not just walking a little bit better. When they respond, they walk a lot better," he said.

Currently, invasive surgery is the only treatment option for people with spinal damage.

"There are currently no drug therapies available that improve the very limited natural recovery from spinal cord injuries that patients experience," Lyn Jakeman, a program director at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told NBC News.

"This is a great step toward identifying a novel agent for helping people recover," Jakeman said. The institute provided funding for the study.


Drug-Resistant Infections Among Newborns in India Pose Worldwide Threat

Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are killing tens of thousands of babies in India each year and could become a global health threat, a new study says.

Last year, more than 58,000 infants in India died of these resistant infections. That's only a small portion of the nearly 800,000 newborns who die each year in India, but doctors say the rising number of deaths from resistant infections could eventually defeat efforts to improve the country's infant death rate, The New York Times reported.

India accounts for nearly one-third of newborn deaths worldwide.

"Reducing newborn deaths in India is one of the most important public health priorities in the world, and this will require treating an increasing number of neonates who have sepsis and pneumonia," said study leader Dr. Vinod Paul, chief of pediatrics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, The Times reported.

"But if resistant infections keep growing, that progress could slow, stop or even reverse itself. And that would be a disaster for not only India but the entire world," Paul added.

"Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections," Dr. Neelam Kler, chairwoman of the department of neonatology at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, an upscale private hospital in New Delhi, told The Times.

"Now, close to 100 percent of the babies referred to us have multidrug resistant infections. It's scary," Kler added.

An ongoing study at several government-run hospitals in Delhi has found that 70 percent of infections in more than 12,000 high-risk newborns were immune to a number of powerful antibiotics, The Times reported.

There is extensive evidence that a large amount of bacteria in India's water, sewage, animals, soil and even mothers are immune to nearly all antibiotics, according to a number of scientists.

These resistant bacteria are especially dangerous to newborns because their immune systems are weak, The Times reported.

The "superbugs" have started to spread to other countries, researchers warn.

"India's dreadful sanitation, uncontrolled use of antibiotics and overcrowding coupled with a complete lack of monitoring the problem has created a tsunami of antibiotic resistance that is reaching just about every country in the world," Dr. Timothy Walsh, a professor of microbiology at Cardiff University in the U.K., told The Times.

Resistant bacteria that originated in India have already been confirmed in a number of countries, including the United States, France, Japan and Oman.


U.S. Health Care Worker Arriving From West Africa May Have Ebola

An American health care worker who may be infected with Ebola arrived Thursday morning at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta after a flight from West Africa.

The hospital has a special isolation unit that was used for four of the 10 Ebola patients previously treated in the United States. Six of those 10 were Americans infected while providing care in Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa, the Associated Press reported.

No details about the health care worker were released, and a hospital spokeswoman did not say why the patient was being evacuated from West Africa even before Ebola infection was confirmed.

Citing privacy considerations, a U.S. State Department official refused to comment on the case, the AP reported.

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