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Health Highlights: Jan. 19, 2005

Airline Drinking Water Quality Getting Worse: Report Spanish Catholic Church Leaders OK Condoms to Combat HIV Children's Health Insurance Funds to be Redistributed Bush's Health Nominee Questioned on Medicaid, FDA Food Makers Seek Formulas Without Trans Fats

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

Airline Drinking Water Quality Getting Worse: Report

The quality of drinking water aboard American airliners is getting worse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported Wednesday.

A round of tests conducted in November and December found that one in six airliners had drinking water that failed to meet federal safety standards for coliform bacteria. Testing conducted the previous August and September found that one in eight airliners had water that failed to meet the standards, the Associated Press reported.

The latest round of testing found the bacteria in drinking water aboard 29 of 160 randomly selected aircraft at 14 U.S. airports. The sampled water was taken from lavatory faucets and galley water taps.

Coliform bacteria is usually harmless but can be an indicator of other harmful organisms. None of the aircraft had E. coli bacteria, which can cause gastrointestinal problems.

"It's an issue that's of concern. It's not an indication that anyone needs to panic," Thomas V. Skinner, acting assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, told the AP.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, said drinking water aboard airliners is as safe as the municipal water sources that supply it.

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Spanish Catholic Church Leaders OK Condoms to Combat HIV

Spain's Catholic Church leaders have given their approval to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The Spanish Bishop's Conference said its decision was based on medical evidence published in the November issue of The Lancet medical journal, United Press International reported.

A conference representative met with Spain's health minister to discuss the bishop's proposal.

Pope John Paul II has condemned the use of any type of contraception. However, there is no official Vatican policy on the use of condoms to protect against AIDS, UPI reported.

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Children's Health Insurance Funds to be Redistributed

The U.S. government is redistributing $643 million in unspent State Children's Health Insurance (SCHIP) funds to help some states avoid shortfalls this year.

The announcement said 28 states would receive supplemental funds under the redistribution program. Without that money, five states -- Arizona, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- would have run out of federal funding for their SCHIP programs.

"No child will lose health insurance because states don't have funds to administer a program that is critical to kids who would otherwise not have regular access to health care," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a prepared statement.

"We intend to do as much as possible to use SCHIP funds to improve access to coverage, and even with this redistribution, we expect to complete the 2005 fiscal year with over $5 billion in unspent federal matching funds," said Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees SCHIP.

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Bush's Health Nominee Questioned on Medicaid, FDA

States should be given greater flexibility in devising rules for their individual Medicaid programs, President Bush's nominee to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, said at his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Leavitt said states should be given the option to trim benefits, which would allow them to cover more low-income people under Medicaid and reduce the program's spiraling costs, according to The New York Times. Medicaid spending has soared 63 percent in the last five years to more than $300 billion, the newspaper said.

Leavitt cited a plan he devised in Utah to provide so-called "limited benefits" to Medicaid recipients that didn't include hospitalization or specialty care. But under a waiver approved by the Bush administration in 2002, state hospitals provided free care to people who had gained coverage, the Times reported.

Leavitt, who was tapped by Bush in 2003 to be chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after 10 years as governor, is expected to win quick approval, the newspaper said. If confirmed, senators urged him to name a permanent chief of the embattled U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been without a commissioner for more than a year.

The FDA's drug approval process has been called into serious question since last fall, when the arthritis drug Vioxx was withdrawn from the market because new research showed it raised patients' risks of heart attack and stroke. Two similar drugs, Celebrex and Bextra, have been associated with increased risk of heart problems.

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Food Makers Seek Formulas Without Trans Fats

In advance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's edict that food companies begin listing so-called trans fats on their labels by January 2006, the firms are scrambling to find new recipes that don't include the artery-clogging substances, the Associated Press reported.

Trans fats, created by a process that turns liquid oils into solid fats, have been used for decades. They're normally listed on ingredient labels as partially hydrogenated oils, though there's no current requirement to specify how much of the oils are present. The ingredients, which like other bad fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, are used in everything from cookies and breads to soups and potato chips.

A few companies have already removed the oils from at least some of their products, including Gorton's frozen seafoods, Kraft's Triscuits and Oreos, Pepperidge Farm's Goldfish crackers, and Smucker's Crisco cooking oil, the wire service said.

The companies say they're faced with the challenge of removing the oils without sacrificing the foods' appearance, texture, and most important, flavor. Conceded an industry analyst, "Let's face it, fat tastes good."

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