Top health stories of 2007

<!—

From deadly vegetables to contaminated pet food, from recalled toys to drug-safety concerns, the health news in 2007 continued to be pretty scary. On the other hand, advances in stem cell research and other medical successes gave reasons for hope.

Here are a just of few of this year’s headlines in health and wellness.

Contaminated products from China. All across North America, dogs and cats started dying because of melamine-tainted pet food from China. Soon after Canadian and American consumers were warned to avoid Chinese-made toothpaste when it was found to contain dithylene glycol (an ingredient found in antifreeze.)

And the recalls didn’t stop there. Millions of toys made in China were recalled over concerns about lead levels. (According to news reports, China has since cracked down on product safety regulations.)

Food scares. Contaminated food, a major concern in 2006, continued into 2007. Organic spinach – usually considered one of the more healthy food options – killed three people in the United States and infected hundreds of others when it became contaminated with E.coli, a bacteria usually associated with meat.

Another major food scare came with a warning that certain jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter might contain salmonella, a major bacterial cause of food poisoning.

Canadian consumers were also warned about the possible risks of botulism in canned green beans and salmonella poisoning in Hershey chocolates. In response to safety concerns, Health Canada recently launched a new website that enables Canadians to search for recalled food and children’s products.

Bad bugs. Antibiotic resistant superbugs are an increasing problem, not only in hospitals but also in our communities. In fact, researchers estimate that there are two million cases of antibiotic-resistant infection in hospitals that kill approximately 70,000 people annually in North America. Hospital-based methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) alone causes an estimated 100,000 difficult-to-treat infections annually. (Read the full article.)

<!—

Tuberculosis was also in the news this summer thanks to the case of Andrew Speaker, an Atlanta lawyer infected with a particularly drug-resistant strain of the disease. Despite warnings from his doctors, Speaker embarked on a trans-Atlantic flight, sparking fears that fellow air travellers may have been infected. Fortunately, no one caught the infection – and while Speaker ended up being diagnosed with a somewhat less dangerous TB bug than previously thought, he required lung surgery to remove damaged tissues. According to media reports, the surgery went well, but he will need to stay on TB drugs for several years. (Read more about TB.)

<!—

Obesity a growing problem. Another year and the global obesity epidemic continues to get worse. An estimated 11 million Canadians are overweight, and about half a million of them are morbidly obese and in need of treatment, including surgery, according to the Canadian Obesity Network.

And a recent French survey suggested that 36 per cent of Canadian men and women who saw their family doctors are obese. Researchers have said that obesity is a major health concern and threatens to wipe out gains made in treating heart disease and diabetes.

Is being overweight actually contagious? Quite possibly, according to research by Harvard and the University of California, San Diego. The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that when a participant’s friend became obese, the participant’s chance of becoming obese himself or herself rose by nearly 60 per cent.

Drug safety concerns provoke calls for stronger warning labels. Both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Association have issued safety warnings for a number of drugs, despite the fact they are widely prescribed in both countries.

Of particular interest to older citizens are antipsychotic medications which are used to manage the behavior of seniors who have dementia. Atypical antipsychotics are drugs such as Risperidone (Risperdal), Quetiapine (Seroquel), Olanzapine (Zyprexa) and Clozapine (Clozaril). The Health Canada warning stated that in 13 scientific studies, older patients with dementia who were prescribed atypical antipsychotics had a 60 per cent higher death rate on average than similar patients taking placebos.

Despite the 2005 Health Canada advisory about the dangers of prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to seniors with mild dementia, the prescriptions for those drugs have increased by from seven to 40 per cent in six provinces from October 2005 to September 2007, according to a CBC report. (Read the full report.)

Another drug currently under debate is Avandia, which is used to treat Type 2 Diabetes. A study published by the Cleveland Clinic showed that people who take the drug had a 43 per cent higher risk of having a heart attack.

Several non-prescription oral cough and cold medicines intended for children under two years old were voluntarily pulled from Canadian shelves because of fears their improper use could lead to deadly overdose. For more information on drug safety issues, visit the Health Canada website.

Declining Breast Cancer rates. Thanks to better screening carried out on a wider scale, early detection and more efficient treatments, the age-standardized mortality rate for breast cancer in women in Canada has fallen 25 per cent since 1986, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

This year the Canadian Cancer Society changed its long standing recommendation regarding the importance of monthly breast self-examination (BSE). The society says that while women should take note of any changes in their breasts, that regular breast self-exams should not replace a mammogram if it is recommended for their age group or family history. (Read the press release.)

A better mammogram? In other breast cancer news, two studies this year found that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are more effective than other techniques at identifying breast cancers in high-risk women. As a result, the American Cancer Society revised its screening recommendations to say that women at high risk for breast cancer should receive a breast MRI every year, in addition to a regular mammogram.

Risk of early death is falling. Death rates from all causes, including heart disease, dropped among all groups (except female diabetics), according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The improved prognosis was attributed to more people reducing risk factors for disease such as not smoking, lowering cholesterol and increasing activity, as well as improved diagnosis and treatment.

Stem cell advances. In what is seen as a major advance for regenerative medicine, scientists say they have created embryonic stem cells – without having to destroy an embryo to do it. This advancement could alleviate many of the ethical objections that have long plagued the research.

Stem cells, which have the potential to develop into many different cell types, could theoretically act as a sort of repair system for ailing and aging bodies. Embryonic stem cells can give rise to all types of tissue and could be used, for example, for transplant therapies in people who are paralyzed or have disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

The new technique, while thought to be an impressive leap forward in stem cell research, still has significant hurdles – primarily that it could cause cancer in patients receiving the therapy. But researchers say they think that in time this risk can be eliminated. (Read the full article.)

RELATED ARTICLES
Health risks for the 21st century
10 most mysterious diseases
Is pollution making us sicker than we thought?