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Health Highlights: May 23, 2011

Last Updated: May 23, 2011.

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

Infant Deaths Spur FDA Warning Against Food Thickening Gel

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning parents to avoid feeding a food-thickening agent, SimplyThick, to premature babies. The gel is typically given to babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks) to help them with problems swallowing.

The warning comes after the product was linked to 15 cases of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a potentially lethal condition involving inflammation and death of intestinal tissue. Two of the babies in these cases died, the FDA said in a statement.

The agency said it first learned of the potential problem with SimplyThick on May 13, with cases reported over the prior six months in premature infants treated at centers around the country. The babies were given SimplyThick to help with swallowing difficulties linked to prematurity. Some of the babies fell ill after using SimplyThick after discharge from the hospital, the FDA said.

NEC typically has symptoms such as bloated abdominal area, trouble with feeding, green-colored vomiting (from bile), and bloody stools. Parents and caregivers with any concerns about the use of SimplyThick should contact their health care provider, the FDA said.

According to the agency, SimplyThick is sold at distributors and pharmacies across the United States in packets of individual servings or in 64-ounce dispenser bottles.


Crossing Your Arms Might Ease Hand Pain: Study

The simple act of crossing your arms in front of your body might help lessen pain occurring in the hands, British researchers report.

According to the BBC, the scientists studied 20 people who were given a brief laser-delivered pin-prick of pain to their hands.

Reporting in the journal Pain, the team from University College London said that rates of self-reported pain declined when the arms were crossed over the body's "midline," an imaginary division running down the center of the body. Results from electroencephalogram (EEG) also suggested a weaker pain response after arms were crossed.

According to the authors, the act of crossing the arms seems to confuse the brain's "maps" that tell it where the pain has occurred, lessening the response. "When you cross your arms these maps are not activated together anymore, leading to less effective brain processing of sensory stimuli, including pain, being perceived as weaker," lead author Dr. Giandomenico Iannetti told the BBC.

He said that his team, along with Australian researchers, is now testing out this novel pain-reduction technique on people with chronic pain conditions.


U.S. Insurers Told to Justify Rate Hikes Over 10 Percent

The Obama Administration on Thursday told the health insurance industry that insurers must now justify any increases in rates that exceed 10 percent, in an effort to hold back soaring premium rates, The New York Times reported.

In a period where many Americans are putting off care due to faltering finances, insurers are reaping the benefit in higher profits, said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services.

"Health insurance companies have recently reported some of their highest profits in years and are holding record reserves," she said. "Insurers are seeing lower medical costs as people put off care and treatment in a recovering economy, but many insurance companies continue to raise their rates. Often, these increases come without any explanation or justification."

The 10 percent threshold was first proposed in December, but the insurance industry criticized it as arbitrary, the Times said. The administration rejected that notion, and on Thursday upheld the 10 percent threshold.

Workers in some states experienced health insurance premium hikes of 20 percent to 40 percent in 2011, the Times said, even as coverage shrinks and deductibles rise.

Federal officials do not have the authority to block rate increases over 10 percent that are found to be unjustified, but many states do have that capability. The administration is therefore providing $250 million in aid to states to help them fight increases deemed to be unreasonable, the Times said.

The new rule has its critics and admirers. "If we believe health care costs are crushing the economy, we ought to have a debate about how to bring costs under control," Karen M. Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, told the Times. "Focusing on premiums diverts attention from that debate."

But a consumer advocate supported the new move. "The days of insurance companies running roughshod over consumers and jacking up rates whenever they want are over," Ethan S. Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, which represents labor unions and civil rights groups, told the Times.


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