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Health Highlights: April 10, 2009

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

Ethanol Raises Cost of Food Aid for Needy: Report

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report says that increased use of the corn-based fuel additive ethanol may cost the government up to $900 million for food stamps and child nutrition programs, the Associated Press reports.

Higher use of ethanol accounted for about 10 percent to 15 percent of the rise in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008, according to the report. Economists estimated that increased costs for food programs overall will be about $5.3 billion in the current budget year, the AP said. Demand for ethanol was one factor that boosted corn prices, which led to higher animal feed and ingredient costs for farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers that is eventually passed on to consumers, the report said.

Groups opposed to a higher cap for the amounts of ethanol blended in gasoline production released a statement Thursday opposing tax breaks for the fuel. These groups included the Grocery Manufacturers Association, American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation and National Council of Chain Restaurants.

"As startling as these figures are, they do not even tell the story of the toll higher food prices have taken on working families, nor the impact higher feed prices have had on farmers in animal agriculture who have seen staggering losses and job cuts and liquidation of livestock herds," the statement said.

But Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an ethanol industry group, told AP, "The impact of ethanol production on food prices is minimal," citing energy costs in general as responsible for the rise in food prices. Ethanol producers last month asked the Environmental Protection Agency to raise the amount of ethanol that can be blended with gasoline from the current maximum of 10 percent to 15 percent, saying it could create thousands of new jobs, according to the AP.

The EPA has yet to decide on raising the ethanol cap, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the administration could move quickly to raise it to 12 percent or 13 percent, the AP reported.


Thyroid Drug Can Cause Liver Failure in Children, Doctors Warn

The thyroid disease drug propylthiouracil can cause liver failure in children and should no longer be used to treat them, two U.S. doctors warn in a letter published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Propylthiouracil (PTU) is commonly used to treat youngsters with Graves' disease, the most common cause of overactive thyroid. However, reports over the past six decades have linked the drug to liver failure in children, the Associated Press said.

An analysis of data suggests that five to 10 children in the United States die each year from complications caused by propylthiouracil, said Donald R. Mattison, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Dr. Scott A. Rivkees of Yale University School of Medicine.

They recommended that doctors not use propylthiouracil as an initial treatment for overactive thyroid, the AP reported. Another drug called methimazole is available, and other treatments are surgery and radioactive iodine.

Propylthiouracil is also used to treat adults with Graves' disease, but the drug appears to cause fewer liver problems in adults, Mattison and Rivkees said.


Stress During Pregnancy Increases Risk of Asthmatic Child: Study

Stressed-out pregnant women were 60 percent more likely to have a baby who would develop asthma than calmer mothers-to-be, says a U.K. study that included about 6,000 families.

The researchers also found that 16 percent of children with asthma had mothers who had high levels of anxiety during pregnancy, BBC News reported.

"Perhaps the natural response to stress which produces a variety of hormones in the body may have an influence on the developing infant and their developing immune system that manifests itself later on," said Professor John Henderson of the Children of the '90s project at the University of Bristol.

The project is tracking 14,000 children who are regularly tested in order to determine how different lifestyles affect health, growth and intelligence. The goal is to identify ways to optimize the health and development of children, BBC News reported.

Along with this finding about stress and asthma, the project has found that women who eat oily fish during pregnancy have children with better visual development, and that left-handed children do worse on tests than right-handed children.

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Posted: April 2009