A new study estimates that about 300,000 school-age children have been diagnosed with autism.
Researchers have tried a number of ways to find out how many children in the United States have autism. This latest effort relied on parents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked more than 100,000 parents or guardians whether a child in their household had ever been diagnosed with autism. The answer was yes for about one child in 175. That's a higher rate than in studies that relied on information from schools and doctors.
One reason may be that the parents weren't asked whether a child had severe autism or a milder form, such as Asperger's disorder. Researchers say the results will help estimate the resources needed by children with autism. But they say the study offers no clues about what causes autism, or whether it's more common than it used to be. — Jon Hamilton
U.S. Grants $1 Billion for Faster Flu Vaccine Production
The federal government has awarded more than $1 billion to five vaccine manufacturers to accelerate development of fast new ways to make flu vaccines.
The grants are a big chunk of the $3.8 billion Congress appropriated late last year to prepare the nation for a pandemic.
The money is to accelerate development of new technology that allows large quantities of flu virus to be grown in vats of mammalian cells. That's the first step in making flu vaccine.
Currently, all flu vaccines are made from virus grown in hundreds of millions of fertilized chicken eggs. That's more time-consuming, and special chicken flocks have to be maintained to produce the eggs on a tight-time schedule. And the process can run into snags, since flu viruses have to be adapted to grow well in eggs.
Cell-culture technology is a short-cut that could shave months off the production of flu vaccine production. — Richard Knox
More Doctors Leaving Managed-Care Plans
May 4, 2006 — A small but rising number of doctors are dropping out of managed health-care plan networks, according to a new study.
Despite complaints about low pay and high administrative hassles, most doctors still participate in managed-care networks, according to the study by the nonpartisan Center for Studying Health System Change.
But the study did find that the percentage of doctors who have basically abandoned managed care grew from 9.2 percent five years ago to 11.5 percent now.
While researchers said it's not clear if this is the start of a trend, the impact on patients could be significant, since most people with insurance are in a plan with a managed-care network. Seeking care outside that network is inevitably more expensive. . — Julie Rovner
Flu Plan Calls for Vaccine, Treatment Rationing
May 3, 2006 — The Bush administration says when a flu pandemic occurs, anti-flu drugs and vaccine will be rationed. But a new pandemic plan does not spell out how that should happen.
The plan details how the nation should cope with a potential flu pandemic. But it defers questions of who should get antiviral drugs or scarce doses of a vaccine against bird flu.
The plan says sensitive decisions about rationing would be made while pandemic flu spread. Officials also suggest local communities could make their own decisions.
Jeff Levi of the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan advocacy group, questions this decision.
"Certainly it would undermine I think the degree to which people will comply with other public-health control measures if people don't see the public-health community speaking with one voice," Levi said.
The plan notes that anger over medical shortages could lead to civil unrest. — Richard Knox
Medicare Gets Poor Marks on Senior Communication
May 3, 2006 — Medicare officials are crying foul over a new Government Accountability Office study. The GAO says Medicare hasn't done a very good job explaining the new prescription-drug benefit to seniors. Not only are written materials too sophisticated, according to the study, but operators at Medicare's toll free number provided incomplete or inaccurate information a third of the time.
Medicare administrator Mark McClellan, however, told a House hearing the report has serious flaws.
"I'm very concerned about the report being incomplete, inaccurate, and out of date," McClellan said.
He added that the shortcomings GAO found — mostly in January and February — have largely been corrected. — Julie Rovner
ERs Report Trouble Retaining On-Call Specialists
May 2, 2006 — There's more evidence that hospital emergency rooms have problems getting the specialists they need as soon as they need them, according to a survey published by the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Researchers questioned more than 1,300 medical directors of hospital emergency rooms around the country. Nearly three-quarters of them said they had difficulty retaining on-call specialists. The top five shortages were in orthopedics, plastic surgery, neuro-surgery, ear, nose, and throat, and hand surgery.
Researchers say shortages have increased over the past year for a number of reasons, including recent changes in federal law which allow specialists to be on-call at more than one hospital at the same time. Also, more specialists are negotiating fewer on-call hours at hospitals.
ER directors report patients are leaving the ER without being seen, a trend that has also increased over the past year. — Patricia Neighmond
Poor English Healthier than Richest Americans?
May 2, 2006 — Poorer whites in England are healthier than the richest white Americans, according to a joint U.S.-British study.
Researchers studied only whites in order to negate any racial factors in the comparison. They report in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that the rate of diabetes is twice as high among white Americans aged 55 to 64. Several markers for heart disease show Americans in that group are at higher risk. Five percent of the English in the study said they'd had cancer; nearly twice as many Americans reported a cancer history. The researchers don't think the differences exist because health care is more widely available in England. One possible explanation: The obesity epidemic hit whites in England only recently. — Joanne Silberner
Vaccine/Cipro Combination Effective Against Anthrax
May 1, 2006 — If someone tries to use anthrax as a bioterror weapon again, U.S. Army researchers have a highly effective treatment. It combines a standard antibiotic with a vaccine.
In the fall of 2001, 10,000 people potentially exposed to deadly anthrax were urged to take the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, for 60 days. Fewer than half followed that advice, partly because Cipro has side effects. That prompted researchers at the Army's Fort Detrick to look for a treatment people would be more likely to take.
Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists exposed 20 monkeys to high doses of anthrax. Ten got Cipro for two weeks. The other 10 got Cipro plus three doses of the anthrax vaccine that U.S. soldiers now get. Only four monkeys survived in the Cipro-only group. All 10 of the animals who also got the vaccine lived.
The researchers say this regimen may be more effective in the event of another anthrax attack. — Richard Knox
Type 2 Diabetes on the Rise, Undiagnosed in Teens
May 1, 2006 — Diabetes among teenagers may be a even bigger problem in the United States than health experts think, according to a study in this week's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
About one in every 500 children has type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes typically develops during adulthood and until recently has not been a problem for American youth. But the increased incidence of obesity has changed that. Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle used national statistics to estimate the number of adolescents who may be suffering from type 2 diabetes. They analyzed blood sugar tests of more than 4,300 teenagers.
Among those who had never been told they had diabetes, 11 percent turned out to have the disease. Researchers say this means as many as 39,000 teenagers nationwide may also have diabetes. They suggest doctors do more frequent blood-sugar testing and lipid testing among overweight teens, who are especially at risk for diabetes. — Patricia Neighmond
Study: Patients Not Always Best Judge of Health Care
May 1, 2006 — Patients do a generally poor job rating the quality of their own health care, according to a study from the Rand Corporation.
Many health plans and care providers use patient satisfaction surveys as a key indicator of quality. But the Rand study found that at least in the case of seniors enrolled in managed-care plans, the quality of care they report on surveys does not correspond to technical measures of quality as recorded in their medical charts or in one-on-one interviews. In other words, just because a patient was pleased with his or her care did not mean it was technically excellent.
What did correspond with high-patient satisfaction in surveys was good doctor-patient communications.
The researchers warned that such satisfaction surveys should not be seen as a measure of high-quality health care; that requires separate assessment.
The study appears in this week's Annals of Internal Medicine. — Julie Rovner
Medicare Premiums May Rise in 2007
May 1, 2006 — Medicare premiums are likely to rise to nearly $100 a month next year, according to a new report from the program's trustees. It would be the third straight year of double-digit increases.
The Medicare news in the annual trustees report was grim on both sides of the program. Medicare's hospital trust fund is now expected to go broke in 2018, two years earlier than projected last year.
Meanwhile, rapid increases in spending for physician care is boosting costs for the portion of Medicare funded jointly by general-tax revenues and beneficiary premiums. Those increases will not only boost premiums by an estimated $10 a month, they could also trigger new requirements for Congress and the president to consider cost-cutting changes. — Julie Rovner