Health Highlights: Sept. 17, 2013

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

Fetal Pain Science Unclear

Since 2010, a dozen U.S. states have enacted laws banning abortion at 20 weeks after conception, saying that fetuses can feel pain at that point of development. However, the science is unclear.

Most scientists who have waded into the debate have said they believe that if fetuses can feel pain, it's not until well after 20 weeks and after the point in time when nearly all abortions occur, The New York Times reported.

Abortion opponents say that some scientific research shows that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks after conception. One of those scientists said fetuses could likely feel pain then, but added that the few abortions performed at that point could be done in ways to avoid pain.

He and two other researchers do not believe their work or current evidence provide scientific support for abortion laws based on fetal pain, The Times reported.

In some cases, scientists' opinions have changed as more studies have been conducted. One of those is Dr. Nicholas Fisk, a senior maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital in Australia, and former president of the International Fetal Medicine and Surgery Society.

He once believed that early fetal pain was "a major possibility" after discovering that fetuses receiving blood transfusions showed increased stress hormones and blood flow to the brain, and that painkillers lowered those levels.

However, neurological research has convinced Fisk that fetal pain "is not possible at all" before 24 weeks, The Times reported.

Supporters of fetal-pain abortion laws contend that surgeons' use of anesthesia and painkillers when operating on fetuses in the womb proves that fetuses feel pain. But fetal surgeons say the drugs are used for reasons other than fetal pain.

Anesthesia is given to the mother and fetuses are given muscle relaxants and narcotics, according to Dr. Scott Adzik, a fetal surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The drugs are given to prevent pain in mothers, relax the uterus, immobilize the fetus and block harmful effects of a fetus's hormonal stress response, he explained.

Adzik said he did not know if fetuses would feel pain without these drugs, The Times reported.

Supporters of fetal-pain abortion laws often cite the work of Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a professor of pediatrics, anesthesiology and neurobiology at the University of Tennessee's Health Sciences Center.

He believes it likely that fetuses can feel pain at 18 to 24 weeks, but added that the "issue of fetal pain does not have much relevance for abortion, since most abortions are performed before the fetus is capable of experiencing pain," The Times reported.

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6.6 Million Children Under Age 5 Died in 2012: UNICEF

Childhood death rates have fallen 50 percent worldwide since 1990, but about 6.6 million children under the age of 5 still died last year, according to UNICEF.

The U.N. children's agency said that five countries -- China, Congo, India, Nigeria and Pakistan -- account for nearly half of all the children who die, the Associated Press reported.

The leading causes of death are malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea, which claim the lives of about 6,000 children under age 5 each day. A lack of nutrition contributes to nearly half these deaths, UNICEF said.

"Progress can and must be made," said Anthony Lake, the agency's executive director, the AP reported. "When concerted action, sound strategies, adequate resources and strong political will are harnessed in support of child and maternal survival, dramatic reductions in child mortality aren't just feasible, they are morally imperative."

Posted: September 2013


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