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Health workers conducted a house-to-house vaccination campaign in Sanaa, Yemen, on Feb. 20. Photo by Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

5 medical stories you might have missed

It’s easy for politics to dominate our news feeds these days. But there are many important stories in the health and medical communities, too. Here’s what we’re reading now.

1. Trump budget proposes stricter access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

WOONSOCKET, RI - MARCH 01: The International Market caters to those on the SNAP program (food stamps). 92% of the sales at the store come from the program. Brightly colored items are popular with locals. Many families and individuals in Woonsocket, Rhode Island are needy and take part in the SNAP (food stamps) program. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Trump administration has recommended sweeping cuts to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) program. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When the Trump administration released its proposed 2019 budget, it also recommended sweeping cuts to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) program

The White House’s idea is for states to develop “food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships, or commercial/retail delivery services.”

People who currently receive $90 or more a month to use toward food purchases would instead receive boxes with “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish” instead of shopping on their own, in a move to reduce costs and fraud, the proposal said.

The administration suggested this could help create $213 billion in cuts by 2028 and encourage more able-bodied Americans to work.

Why it matters: Since the 1960s, SNAP has been the nation’s largest food security program, helping 42 million Americans access healthy food and avoid malnutrition and starvation. Right now, those who receive assistance from SNAP use electronic benefits transfer cards to purchase food at participating retail stores and farmers markets. Each month, federal dollars given to the states are transferred onto recipients’ cards.

Conservatives lauded the White House proposal as a way to encourage a demoralized workforce to find a job and earn a paycheck.

“As the economy improved and unemployment has dropped, there still remains lower than average workforce participation,” said Robert Doar, a fellow who studies poverty at the American Enterprise Institute. “People are sort of out of the labor market.”

But critics say the Trump administration’s proposal “would create a bureaucratic nightmare that would increase costs and force-feed Americans in a one-size-fits-all system.”.

“This system [already] relies on the private market to deliver and stock the food, and allows families to choose based on their tastes and needs,” said Diane Schanzenbach, an economist who studies child poverty policy and directs The Hamilton Project for the Brookings Institution. “Why would you want to replace the efficient free market system here with a big government system of distribution?”

2. FDA asks lawmakers to change Loperamide packaging to help prevent abuse

An average of 115 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses. Now, the Food and Drug Administration says taking loperamide, an over-the-counter drug that treats diarrhea, may be contributing to dangerous symptoms and possibly death.

Loperamide, often referred to by its brand name Imodium A-D, is one way people with opioid use disorder try to ease withdrawal symptoms. It can also get users high when taken at incorrect doses.

The FDA wants loperamide to be packaged in blister packs or single doses when it’s sold in local pharmacies and online, instead of in packs of up to 72 pills, as it’s currently being sold, according to a drug safety warning last month.

Why it matters: The agency says these changes would cut down misuse of the drug. For those taking the medication as it’s intended, to relieve diarrhea symptoms, this may also help reinforce that the drug should only be used up to two days in order to avoid side effects like fainting or irregular heartbeat.

The next question is whether drug companies will cooperate. According to Bloomberg, Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, which makes and sells the drug, said in an email that the company was “evaluating the agency’s request and share their goal to prevent misuse and abuse.”

3. Some epidemic prevention programs may be cut as the CDC faces funding issues

About 5 million children under age 5 were vaccinated against polio in the World Health Organization's latest campaign. Photo by Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

About 5 million children under age 5 were vaccinated against polio in the World Health Organization’s latest campaign. Photo by Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Four years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pledged $600 million to help prevent the spread of serious infections and diseases. But now, facing the end of that one-time funding approved by Congress in the wake of 2014’s Ebola outbreak , the CDC is scaling back its epidemic prevention programs, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reported this month.

The five-year program is set to run out of money by September 2019, and officials don’t expect additional funding from Congress. As a result, both news outlets reported, the CDC now may be “downsizing” epidemic prevention in 39 of 49 nations covered by the program. The CDC would instead focus on 10 countries: India, Thailand, Vietnam, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Guatemala. The CDC would resume work in additional countries if the government makes more funding available, officials said.

Why it matters: Experts like Dr. Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, are concerned about potential danger of downsizing the epidemic prevent program. “Not only would this set back scientific, technical and diplomatic relationships that have taken years to develop, it would significantly increase the chance an epidemic will spread without our knowledge and endanger lives in our country and around the world,” he said on CNN. Experts also told the Post that they were concerned that because of the CDC’s decision, other countries would scale back their resources, too.

4. White House says it will try to lower drug prices

Politics are spurring interest, but also impeding progress on addressing drug prices. Photo by Comstock Images/Getty Images

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers is attempting to make prescription drugs more affordable. The council’s 30-page document, released this month, proposes a number of changes to Medicare and Medicaid programs, including better reporting of drug pricing data to encourage transparency and revising the Medicare Part B coverage as part of Medicare Part D to give drug manufacturers more incentive to price match.

Why it matters: Americans already spend an estimated $200 billion on pharmaceutical drugs each year. The most expensive drugs treat things like genetic diseases and cancers. And the most innovative treatments come with higher price tags that could be a barrier for those who can’t afford them. The council, as part of its plan, also wants to set aside funding for “up to five States to test drug coverage and financing reforms that build on private sector best practices,” which it hopes will lead to new state-level strategies to control drug costs.

“We are still uncertain in the United States how much the sick should carry their own weight economically, versus the many should chip in financially to protect those who are sick. That’s what this debate is about,” Peter B. Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told The New York Times.

5. Smoking even just one cigarette a day can increase risks of heart disease

Cigarettes are arranged for a photograph in New York. Photo by Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cutting back how many cigarettes you smoke, but not quitting entirely, may not be enough to improve your overall health, according to new research published in the British Medical Journal. After reviewing 141 studies and the link between cigarette use, coronary disease and stroke, researchers found that smoking any number of cigarettes carries a risk. For men, smoking one cigarette a day increased their risk by 1.74 times per day while smoking 20 cigarettes doubled the overall risk of having coronary heart disease. Women have even worse outcomes of having coronary heart disease, doubling their risk by smoking one cigarette a day and almost quadrupling the daily risk by smoking 20 cigarettes per day. In the studies, smoking also resulted in a heightened risk of strokes.

Why it matters: Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. It’s resulted in an estimated 480,000 deaths each year — that’s one in every five American deaths. The good news: After one year of quitting smoking, the risk of heart attacks can drop sharply, according to the study.

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