2013 was not a quiet year for health news. Disease outbreaks, new guidelines and celebrity diagnoses made headlines and got people talking. While a year-end roundup of the biggest health stories is bound to be incomplete, we did our best to cull the topics that generated the biggest buzz -- and had the biggest impact -- in the U.S. and abroad. Did we miss anything? Tell us in the comments!
1. The new heart attack guidelines.
This year, the first guidelines for preventing heart attacks and strokes were issued by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. The guidelines called for doctors to consider a new formula for determining patients' risk, including factors such as age, gender, smoking status and race. However, the guidelines have also been controversial because they would mean that one-third of all U.S. adults would have to start taking cholesterol-lowering statins -- and critics of the guidelines say that's too many.
2. Michelle Obama's "Drink Up" campaign.
The First Lady unveiled her newest health initiative late this year, called "Drink Up," which aims to encourage everyone to drink more water, whether it be water from a local tap or a bottle. However, the campaign drew criticism due to the absence of any message to consume fewer sugary drinks.
3. The (glitchy) rollout of healthcare.gov.
The website that is meant to serve as a health insurance marketplace for Americans in more than 30 states has had its fair share of technical bugs since it launched in October. Some reported problems included slow loading, difficulty recognizing some registered users and duplicate enrollments, among others. And as of the end of November, just 364,682 people had signed up for health insurance on the site (the enrollment deadline was Dec. 23 for Jan. 1 coverage), which is less than a third originally projected to enroll by that time, the Associated Press reported. Now, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is asking for an investigation into all the problems that the site has had since its launch.
4. Obama's BRAIN Initiative.
The BRAIN Initiative (which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) was proposed earlier this year by President Obama, to map brain activity in an effort to better understand brain diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer's, autism and traumatic brain injury -- and potentially develop treatments based on the findings. While exact details of the initiative are still fuzzy, the National Institutes of Health said that a working group is creating a scientific plan that should be developed and delivered by next June.
5. The MERS virus.
While this new virus was first detected last year, it wasn't given an official name -- Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus -- until this past May. The virus has been reported in nine countries so far, including four European countries, though most cases have been identified in Middle Eastern countries. MERS had never been seen in humans before; about half of people who developed the virus have died.
6. The polio outbreak in Syria.
An outbreak of the crippling disease polio has emerged in Syria amid conflict in the country, leaving at least 17 children crippled by the virus. Syria was considered "polio-free" in 1999, the Christian Science Monitor reports, but vaccination rates have plummeted from above 90 percent in 2011 to 68 percent three years later. As a result, a massive polio vaccination effort has been launched in the country. However, as refugees flee to other surrounding countries, concerns have been raised that polio could spread beyond Syria's borders. Most recently, Reuters has reported that the rebel-held province where the virus has resurfaced was not included in a polio vaccination campaign held last year.
7. The comeback of whooping cough and measles.
Diseases that vaccines can protect against have reared their ugly heads in the United States this year, including the whooping cough in Texas, and measles all across the U.S. In Texas, whooping cough actually reached epidemic proportions, Reuters reported, with nearly 2,000 cases being reported as of September. Health officials said the epidemic is likely a result of a new pertussis vaccine that seems to not be as effective over a long period of time, and a decrease in vaccinations against whooping cough. Meanwhile there have been eight outbreaks of measles (as of September) in the U.S., mostly in places with low vaccination rates (the MMR vaccine protects against measles).
8. Increasing use of -- and confusion about -- e-cigarettes.
Are electronic cigarettes dangerous? Can they help you quit smoking real cigarettes? And how should they be regulated, if at all? These were all questions raised this year, none of which have a clear answer. Some research has suggested that they are effective as smoking cessation aides, but critics say that the products could actually make smoking attractive, or make it harder for people to quit smoking completely.
In addition, long-term research on the health effects of e-cigarettes is not yet available. LiveScience's Christopher Wanjek pointed out e-cigarettes still deliver nicotine in the same way as cigarettes (and not in the same way as smoking cessation aides in the form of nicotine patches or gums), making the body crave nicotine. Right now, e-cigarettes are banned in a few countries, including Singapore and Brazil, and while there is no federal rule regulating them (yet) in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to release some rules shortly. Some states have banned e-cigarettes in places where smoking is not allowed.
9. The beginning of the end of trans fats.
The FDA proposed this year to require the food industry to phase out trans fats, by no longer considering them as "generally recognized as safe." While trans fats have already been reduced over recent years in many food products and fast food restaurants, they still exist in some foods such as margarine, microwave popcorn and frozen pizza.
10. The naming of the "most-stressed" generation.
And the title goes to … millenials (otherwise known as the 18-to-33 set). The American Psychological Association's "Stress in America" survey showed that millenials have an average stress level of 5.4 out of 10, where 10 is the highest. Meanwhile, the national average was 4.9. In addition, half of millenials said they are kept awake at night because of stress.
11. The new DSM.
The newest edition of the psychiatry bible, the DSM-5, came out this year; the last version was published in 1994. The updated version included many revisions, including the elimination of the diagnosis of "Asperger's syndrome," the making of compulsive hoarding as its own stand-alone disorder (it used to be lumped in with obsessive-compulsive disorder), and the first classifying of a behavior -- compulsive gambling -- as an addiction.
12. Multiple reports of HIV "cures."
When it comes to "curing" HIV, 2013 was an especially hopeful year. In March, doctors reported that a baby infected with HIV while in the womb was put in remission after being given faster and stronger treatment than usual immediately after being born. The child is now 3, and does not need to take antiretroviral medication, nor does she show any signs of infection.
In addition, 14 adults were reportedly "functionally cured" of HIV and no longer have to take medication after being treated with combination antiretroviral therapy; they do still have barely detectable levels of HIV in their bodies. However, it's not all good news: HIV has returned in two men who were previously declared to be virus-free after receiving bone marrow transplants for unrelated cancer.
13. Increased accessibility to the morning-after pill.
All age restrictions to purchase Plan B One-Step (and generic versions of the emergency contraceptive) were lifted this year after a lengthy court battle. The contraceptive cuts chances of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, and was previously only available for purchase by people 17 and younger if they had a prescription.
Honorable Mention: Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy.
Perhaps nothing got women talking about breast cancer more this year than Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The New York Times, announcing she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy because she carries a genetic mutation that is known to raise breast cancer risk. "We often speak of 'Mommy's mommy,' and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us," she wrote in the op-ed. "They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a 'faulty' gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer."
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