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Health Highlights: Feb. 9, 2010

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

New Guidelines Coming on Use of Newborn Blood Samples

U.S. government advisers say new national recommendations that will give parents more information and more say on the use of blood samples taken from newborns should be available by spring.

The heel-prick blood spots taken from all newborns are tested for a wide range of diseases. But often, the blood spots are kept and used for research without the parents' consent, the Associated Press reported.

This has created a backlash in some states. For example, a lawsuit by Texas parents upset about what they call secret DNA warehousing has the state ready to discard blood samples from more than 5 million infants.

"It's a critical thing that we take action," because distrust about the use of leftover blood spots threatens public confidence in the newborn screening program, federal government advisory board member Sharon Terry, of the nonprofit Genetic Alliance, told the AP.

"The sunshine on the information -- educating parents -- is the way lesser threat. Done well and done right, there will be enormous benefit overall to the system," she said.


Poor-Quality Malaria Pills Worry Experts

Poor-quality malaria pills sold in three African countries threaten to increase drug resistance and reduce the effectiveness of the medicines, according to a U.S. government-funded study.

Researchers found between 16 percent and 40 percent of artemisinin-based drugs sold in Madagascar, Senegal and Uganda failed quality testing mainly because they had impurities or didn't contain enough active ingredient, the Associated Press reported.

"This is a disturbing trend that came to light," said Patrick Lukulay, director of a nongovernmental U.S. Pharmacopeia program that's funded by the U.S. government.

Artemisinin-based drugs are the only affordable treatment for malaria. Other drugs are no longer effective because the parasites that cause malaria have developed resistance to the drugs. There is nothing to replace artemisinin-based drugs if they cease being effective, the AP reported.

That could lead to more deaths from malaria, which now kills one million people worldwide each year.


FDA Wants Realistic Serving Sizes on Food Packaging

Calorie counts and other vital nutrition information should be posted on the front of food packages, and the serving sizes should reflect how much people actually eat, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA wants to make the changes because official serving sizes on many packaged foods are too small, which means the calorie counts that go with them are often misleading, The New York Times reported.

Giving people accurate servings sizes and calories counts may convince them to go easy on foods like chips, ice cream, breakfast cereals and cookies.

"If you put on a meaningful portion size, it would scare a lot of people. They would see, 'I'm going to get 300 calories from that, or 500 calories'," Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, told The Times.


Exercise Protects Against Painful Gallstones: Study

People who get plenty of exercise are far less likely than couch potatoes to suffer painful gallstones, says a British study.

The University of East Anglia researchers analyzed data from 25,000 men and women and found that those with the highest levels of physical activity had a 70 percent reduced risk of gallstone symptoms and complaints, BBC News reported.

The study authors also calculated that about 17 percent of gallstones that require medical treatment could be prevented if everyone increased the amount of exercise they do by one level.

Exercise may help lower painful gallstone risk by reducing overall cholesterol levels in the bile, boosting levels of "good" cholesterol and improving movement through the gut, said the researchers, BBC News reported.

The study appears in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.


Medicines Tossed in Trash End Up in Water: Study

Unused or expired medications that are thrown in the trash can still end up in drinking water, according to a study by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

It found minute amounts of discarded drugs in water at three landfills in the state, the Associated Press reported. This landfill water, called leachate, eventually ends up in rivers. Many communities across the United States draw their drinking water from rivers.

Maine lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would force drug makers to create and pay for a program to collect unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs from consumers and dispose of them.

"People need a way to properly dispose of their drugs, and they're not getting it right now," Mark Hyland, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, told the AP.

Maine is among more than a half a dozen states considering a "take-back" bill for medications. The Maine bill has won committee support and awaits further action. If enacted, it would be the first of its kind in the United States.

The bill is opposed by the drug industry lobby group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the AP reported.

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Posted: February 2010