Top health stories of 2010

Here’s a look at some of 2010’s top health stories:

The H1N1 Pandemic

A year ago the world was in an uproar about this new virus, and health agencies scrambled to implement a controversial immunization campaign while a confused public perfected their sneezing and hand washing techniques. Thankfully, the pandemic wasn’t as bad as experts feared. Despite constant news and case-by-case counts, the so-called swine flu turned out to be relatively mild (though very unpleasant).

Technically, the World Health Organization declared the pandemic over in August, but don’t think we’ve seen the end of H1N1 just yet. As expected, the virus is still around this year as part of the regular flu season, and officials and critics will still be debating the effectiveness of pandemic response protocols for years to come.

The Bed Bug Invasion

It’s the news that had everyone squirming. These pests seem to be everywhere, from high end hotels to the local library. Some health experts even call them the next pandemic, and many major cities are struggling to stay ahead of infestations. Even the Toronto International Film Festival had to sound an all clear to keep visitors coming.

Stories of infestations have many people still checking under their covers and being extra careful when they travel. While there’s still a social stigma to suffering from an infestation, the good news is that these pests don’t carry disease. Unfortunately, eradicating this problem won’t be quick or easy.

For more information on this issue, check out Don’t let the bed bugs bite and A traveller’s guide to dodging bed bugs.

MS Liberation Treatment

Thanks to Italian researcher, Paolo Zamboni, there may be a new approach to treating some cases of multiple sclerosis. The controversial chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) theory hypothesizes that blood from the brain and spine doesn’t drain properly and can contribute to symptoms of MS. A surgical procedure that opens up veins (usually in the neck) using a balloon or stint has shown promising results for some patients suffering from debilitating symptoms

But not everyone is convinced. Overall, studies haven’t yet proven the effectiveness of this new treatment, and there are still many gaps in the research. Canada and the U.S. are in the process of putting together clinical trials, but many patients aren’t willing to wait years for results. Some are seeking the surgery abroad — at their own expense and risk. The issue has prompted protests across the country and demands for research funding and to reimburse patients for out of country surgery costs.


Anti-aging advances

Can we reverse the effects of aging? No, that’s not a marketing slogan — it’s a question researchers are answering with some success. This year, scientists were able to use gene therapy not only to halt the aging process in mice, but also even to make steps towards reversing it. By tweaking the genes that control telomerase — an enzyme that helps maintain telomeres, the protective ‘caps’ on the ends chromosomes — the mice showed a reduction in the symptoms of aging, including brain disease and infertility.

Don’t get too excited yet: experts warn that it isn’t clear how these findings will apply to humans. For instance, the anti-aging pill — which showed success in animals — is dangerous for people.

For more information, read Scientists partially reverse aging in mice.


Kudos to Canada: our government was the first to officially declare bisphenol-A (BPA) a toxic chemical. Researchers have long argued that BPA — which is used in hard plastics and can liners — affects hormones, and can be especially hazardous to babies and pregnant women. The latest charge is that it can cause infertility.

In recent months, the European Union has followed suit and started to ban this chemical in baby bottles. However, American officials are still debating over the chemical and so far only a handful of states, including Massachusetts and Maine, have taken steps to phase out it out. There are still many questions surrounding BPA, and even Canada is still a long ways off from a total ban.


Sick of this story yet? Drug resistant viruses and bacteria have been a top concern for a few years now, especially for patients in hospitals. Sadly, studies suggest the problem isn’t on the decline, and researchers are still trying to stay ahead by developing new medications and therapies.

And now they can share their super powers. Scientists are paying special attention to a gene that could be behind the development of drug resistant strains. New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1 (NDM-1) — an enzyme that is produced by a piece of genetic code — can neutralize the effects of some antibiotics. Like a virus, it can be passed from bacteria to bacteria. NDM-1 reportedly got its start in Pakistan and India, but it has shown up in North American hospitals. So far, health experts warn that it isn’t a serious health threat to Canadians — but they’re keeping a close eye on it.

See Can a super gene become a super threat? for the full story.


New sources of cells

There are a lot of remarkable advancements in the works involving stem cells but they’re often mired in controversy because of their source: embryos. Scientists continue to examine ways to create less controversial — and more readily available — pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, like engineering them from human skin. This year a new technique emerged that’s 100 times more effective in creating these cells. Instead of inserting viruses and cancer-causing genes to create iPS cells, scientists can insert safer RNA.

It may be years yet before we reap the benefits, but experts agree this is a big step forward. In the meantime, experts continue to look for potential sources of iPS cells — the latest being testicles.

Unsafe supplements

Vitamins and supplements are a growing market… and a growing concern. The past year saw numerous warnings and recalls of products containing contaminants, undeclared allergens and even hidden prescription medications — not to mention false claims like flu-curing treatments. Not surprisingly, most culprits were weight loss, sexual enhancement and body building products. Officials in Canada and the U.S. are looking for ways to crack down on companies and tighten up regulations.

However, even common supplements like ginger, garlic and ginseng can have unwanted side effects. A review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology warned that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) products have risks that consumers aren’t aware of. Some products can interact with prescription medications — with potentially dangerous results — while others can cause side effects like dizziness and nausea. Experts warn consumers to be better informed about what they’re taking, and make sure their doctor and pharmacist are kept in the loop.

For more information, see When supplements and prescriptions don’t mix.

Disease breakthroughs

AIDS/HIV: The big news is in prevention: even the Catholic Church softened its stance and admitted condoms can be an effective preventive measure. In less controversial news, the same drug cocktail used to treat AIDS and HIV was also found to help prevent in the infection in otherwise healthy people.

Alzheimer’s disease: Better diagnostic tools are on the way, like a blood test to detect the disease and brain scans to detect early changes — possibly before symptoms appear. Some disease biomarkers can even be detected through the skin, creating the potential for less invasive and more accurate means of diagnosis. (See New hope in the fight against Alzheimer’s for more information.)

Cancer: While a lot of news reports debated whether certain things caused or helped to prevent cancer, researchers in Canada made their mark with a study that showed a drop in Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) use coincided with a drop in breast cancer cases among post-menopausal women.

Celiac disease: It’s more common than we think, especially in seniors. As studies show an increase in cases among adults, experts are considering how environmental factors could trigger this hereditary condition. In the meantime, doctors and patients should consider it as a potential cause of digestive upset and other symptoms. (See Celiac disease on the rise for details.)

Diabetes: So long, Avandia? Due to an increased risk for heart attack and strokes, Health Canada and the FDA restricted the use of this medication that was used to control type 2 diabetes. It’s now harder to get, and only used when other therapies aren’t effective.

Heart news: Hailed as one of the Top Breakthroughs of 2010 by Time Magazine, a new blood test is showing promise in helping to identify people who are at high-risk for a heart attack. It won’t be a stand-alone test, but other factors like family history will still remain in the mix.

Also, new advice was released for CPR: chest compressions are the key, so you don’t need special training to help save a life.

Of course, this is just a small sampling of the news and breakthroughs we saw in 2010. What stories made a difference to you? Tell us in the comments.

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What caught your attention this year? Here are some other top articles:
Reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s
Top 8 signs of cancer
10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s
10 tips for better digestion
10 health benefits of sex
7 medical myths
Shingles: what you should know
8 ways to help prevent cancer

Additional sources: the Canadian Diabetes Association, Canadian Cancer Society, Health Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Time Magazine and WebMD.

Photo © darren baker

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