Health Highlights: Jan. 19, 2012

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

Experts Look to Refine Autism Diagnosis

Criteria that are now being considered for diagnosing autism could limit who would qualify for the health, educational and social services that are typically needed to treat the disorder, new research suggests.

The definition of autism is being reconsidered by an expert panel appointed by the American Psychiatric Association, which is completing work on the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The manual is the standard reference for mental disorders, and drives research, treatment and insurance decisions; the revisions to the manual are expected to be completed by December 2012.

The latest findings, presented at a medical meeting in Iceland this week, show how defining autism more sharply could lead to a dramatic drop in diagnosis rates that many experts suspect are inflated because of vagueness in the current criteria, the Times reported.

“The proposed changes would put an end to the autism epidemic,” said Dr. Fred R. Volkmar, director of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, and an author of the new analysis, told the newspaper. “We would nip it in the bud — think of it that way.”

Under the proposed criteria, a person would have to exhibit three deficits in social interaction and communication and at least two repetitive behaviors — a much narrower definition of the disorder than currently exists.

In the new analysis, Volkmar and his colleagues used data from a large 1993 study that served as the basis for the current criteria. They focused on 372 children and adults who were among the highest functioning and found that only 45 percent of them would qualify for the proposed autism spectrum diagnosis now under review.


Homophobia Common in U.S. Elementary Schools

Negative attitudes towards gays and lesbians are common in U.S. elementary schools and most teachers do little about it, a new survey finds.

The poll of 1,065 students in grades 3 to 6 and 1,099 teachers in grades K to 6 found that about 45 percent of students and 49 percent of teachers said the word “gay” was most often used in a negative way, ABC New reported.

Many students and teachers also said they regularly heard students make homophobic remarks such as “fag” or “lesbo,” according to the survey released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Even though nearly half of teachers regularly heard students making homophobic remarks, only 24 percent said they have personally made efforts to created a safe and supportive environment for students with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) parents, ABC News reported.


Human Deaths From Bird Flu Reported in Cambodia, Vietnam

Both Vietnam and Cambodia have reported human deaths from H5N1 bird flu in recent days.

The H5N1 death of an 18-year-old man confirmed Thursday by Vietnam was the country’s first human H5N1 fatality in nearly two years. That came a day after Cambodia announced that a 2-year-old boy was the first human H5N1 death this year, the Associated Press reported.

Both victims are believed to have become infected through contact with poultry, and no person-to-person transmission is suspected.

Other human cases of bird flu have been reported recently in China, Egypt and Indonesia, the AP said.


Many Abortions Worldwide Unsafe: Study

Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe and abortion rates tend to be higher in countries where the procedure is illegal, according to a new study.

The researchers found that the global abortion rate stayed relatively unchanged between 2003 and 2008, at about 28 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, a total of about 43.8 million abortions, the Associated Press reported.

In 2008, about 47,000 women died from unsafe abortions and another 8.5 million had serious medical complications. The rate of unsafe abortions in 2008 was 49 percent and nearly all unsafe abortions were in developing countries.

“An abortion is actually a very simple and safe procedure,” said study lead author Gilda Sedgh, a senior researcher at the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute, designated by the World Health Organization as an official Collaborating Center for Reproductive Health, the AP reported.

“All of these deaths and complications are easily avoidable,” Sedgh noted.

Western Europe had the lowest abortion rate (12 per 1,000) while Eastern Europe had the highest rate (43 per 1,000). The rate in North America was 19 per 1,000, the AP reported.

The researchers said they found link between higher abortion rates and regions with more restrictive abortion laws, such as Africa and Latin America, and also found that 95 to 97 percent of abortions in these regions were unsafe.

The study was published Thursday in The Lancet.


Lung Association Slams States’ Anti-Smoking Efforts

U.S. states’ anti-tobacco efforts in 2011 were “abysmal,” according to the American Lung Association.

It said states’ collective spending on anti-smoking programs fell 11 percent to $477 million last year from $534 million in 2010, and only two states raised cigarette taxes, Bloomberg News reported.

The lung group gave grades of “F” to 43 states and the District of Columbia for funding smoking prevention programs at less than half the levels recommended in 2007 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While more than half of states have bans on smoking in restaurants, bars and workplaces, no additional states passed comprehensive anti-smoking laws last year, the lung association said, Bloomberg reported.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and kills about 443,000 people a year.