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Health Highlights: Jan. 1, 2003

Autism Rates Soar in U.S. Surgeons Strike in West Virginia FDA Issues Smallpox Blood Guidelines Newspaper: Israeli Smallpox Vaccine May Have Been Tainted Number of Uninsured American Children Declining Study: Age Doesn't Harm Frozen Umbilical Cord Cells

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

Autism Rates Soar in U.S.

The largest study to date on autism finds that the disorder is 10 times more prevalent in the United States than it was in the 1980s.

The study, conducted among Atlanta-area schoolchildren in 1996, found that 3.4 children per 1,000 were either mildly or severely autistic, the New York Times reports. In the 1980s, the rate was closer to four or five per 10,000 children.

If the current rate is accurate, then about 425,000 Americans age 18 or younger have autism, the Times reports. The study, by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Autistic children lack social development, often withdrawing into their own worlds. However, the definition of autism has changed and widened over the years to include milder forms. That may explain why the rate is higher, the Times reports.

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Surgeons Strike in West Virginia

Elective surgeries are on hold in West Virginia as surgeons began a 30-day work slowdown today to protest the rising cost of malpractice insurance.

The action is forcing the diversion of some trauma procedures to hospitals in neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press. Emergency rooms stayed open, though. A similar strike was averted in Pennsylvania, the AP reported.

The strike -- the doctors actually are taking 30-day leaves of absence -- is to protest some of the highest malpractice rates in the country. Neurosurgeons, for instance, pay annual premiums as high as $134,000, according to the AP. The costs, in addition to the malpractice laws that strongly favor patients, are creating a hostile working environment, the doctors say.

"West Virginia is chasing the doctors -- and the businesses in general -- out of the state,'' the AP quotes a spokesman for the doctors as saying. The doctors met for an hour Tuesday with the state's insurance director, but that meeting bore no fruit.

A similar action was staved off in Pennsylvania after that state's governor-elect, Ed Rendell, promised to fight for state aid to the doctors.

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FDA Issues Smallpox Blood Guidelines

People who get the smallpox vaccine should not donate blood for at least three weeks after getting the shot, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns. That's because the vaccine is made from a live smallpox virus, which could be transmitted in the blood supply.

According to the Associated Press, the FDA's new smallpox blood guidelines, which take effect immediately, include recommendations that:

  • Vaccine recipients shouldn't donate blood for 21 days or until the scab that forms at the injection site falls off, whichever is later.
  • People who suffer side effects from the vaccine shouldn't donate blood until 14 days after the side effects wear off.
  • Blood later found to be donated in violation of these guidelines must be destroyed or used for non-human research.

Meanwhile, the nation's leading collectors of blood are challenging Americans to donate 1.2 million units this month. The amount of available blood is traditionally low in January, thanks to the holidays, illness, and travel schedules.

Last January, just over 1 million units were collected, and the American Association of Blood Banks is seeking a 12 percent increase for January 2003.

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Newspaper: Israeli Smallpox Vaccine May Have Been Contaminated

Some of the smallpox vaccine used on 17,000 Israeli health workers may have been contaminated while it was stored after manufacture, Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper reports.

The newspaper cites Rachel Karpel, director of the government Health Ministry's Standards Institute, who says she's concerned that the vaccine may have been stored near samples of bubonic plague, cholera, salmonella, and E coli, the Associated Press reports.

But the newspaper quotes a second high-ranking government health official, who denies that the vaccine was tainted. Health Ministry director-general Boaz Lev adds that none of those inoculated recently have reported any unusual side effects.

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Numbers of Uninsured American Children Declining

Half a million more American children were added to the ranks of those insured during the first half of 2002, a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report says.

The annual survey says the percentage of uninsured kids continued its 5-year decline to 9.8 percent in the first six months of the year from 13.9 percent in 1997. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson says more children are relying on public health care coverage, notably the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which was created in 1997.

SCHIP -- sometimes abbreviated as CHIP -- is meant to help the families of children without health insurance, many of whom are too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid but whose incomes are too low to afford private health coverage.

Some 4.6 million children were enrolled in SCHIP at some point during fiscal year 2001, the most recent year from which data is available, the HHS report says.

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Study: Age Doesn't Harm Frozen Umbilical Cord Cells

Indiana scientists have revived umbilical cord cells frozen more than 15 years ago and used them to restore bone marrow in laboratory animals, according to a study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researcher Hal Broxmeyer and his Indiana University School of Medicine colleagues say cord blood frozen as early as 1985 grew as well as newly drawn cord blood in laboratory cultures, reports the Associated Press. The unfrozen cells were injected into the bone marrow cells of mice, where the cells appeared to thrive.

The scientists caution that the older cells haven't yet been proven to work in people. For more than a decade, cord blood cells have been used among cancer patients to restore the bone marrow destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

If 15-year-old cells are proven to work in people, it would greatly expand the inventory of transplantable cells, experts tell the AP.

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