Health stories grabbed headlines in 2012
BY JANET MARSHALL
From a Supreme Court ruling to a soda ban to a deadly meningitis outbreak, 2012 was a year of big health stories.
In no particular order, here’s a rundown of 10 of the biggest stories of the year—a subjective compilation that draws from “top 10” lists created by The Atlantic, Minnesota Public Radio, Doctor Oz and others.
DEADLY MENINGITIS OUTBREAK
A contaminated steroid sickened hundreds of people this year and killed 39 (at last count). The victims had received injections of a steroid meant to ease back or joint pain. The steroid—tainted with a fungus—came from a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts that has since shut down. Nearly 14,000 were exposed to the drug, and more than 600 have fallen ill so far.
2012 was marred by a number of mass shootings, including the devastating school massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 that left 20 young children and six educators dead. The shooter also killed his mother and himself.
Also in 2012, among other shootings: A U.S. Army veteran opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six; a graduate student attacked moviegoers at a theater in Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 58; a former student killed seven people at a small Christian University in California.
Easy access to guns has become a big part of the daily health and safety dialogue—as has the challenge of getting effective treatment for those who are mentally unstable.
CHANGES TO THE DIAGNOSTIC MANUAL
Asperger’s is no longer an official diagnosis, but hoarding is, and so is “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.” The American Psychiatry Association revised its diagnostic bible—The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—this year, making some significant changes to the way psychiatrists can diagnose patients with mental health problems. Visit dsm5.org for more details.
NEW YORK CITY’S BAN ON BIG SODAS
Want to drink a supersized soda in New York City? Better bring your own. The city’s board of health this year banned restaurants, concession stands and other establishments from selling sugary beverages in containers that hold more than 16 ounces. Some people were outraged by the government’s intervention in what businesses can sell and people can buy, but others were delighted by the city’s effort to protect people from the temptation to make lousy health choices.
HEALTH CARE REFORM SURVIVES
President Obama’s signature legislation survived a legal challenge when the Supreme Court ruled, by a 5–4 vote in June, to uphold the law. Then in November, the act survived a political challenge when Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential election.
The health care law, which takes full effect in 2014, expands access to health insurance for millions of Americans. The multi-faceted law remains controversial; its most popular elements including allowing college students to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26, and closing a prescription drug coverage gap for seniors on Medicare.
PAULA DEEN DISCLOSES SHE HAS TYPE 2 DIABETES
Deen, the queen of unhealthy but delicious cooking, was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago. But she didn’t announce it until this year, leading to lots of spirited commentary about how she kept promoting buttery, sugary, fat-laden recipes on her Food Network show while suffering from a disease tied closely to obesity and unhealthy eating.
LEGALIZATION OF POT IN SOME STATES
While battles over medical marijuana raged in some states and the percentage of teens trying marijuana—and saying they think it’s harmless—rose, Colorado and Washington state voters decided in 2012 to decriminalize the drug. It’s now OK in those states to have small amounts of the drug for personal use, as long as you’re 21 or older.
The state law conflicts with federal law, and it’s yet to be seen whether the federal government will crackdown on pot smokers. Also yet to be seen: what increasing use of marijuana will do to the public’s health.
With the Affordable Care Act making health care accessible to more Americans, concern rose in 2012 about the country’s shortage of physicians. The U.S. already is an estimated 13,000 doctors short of what it needs. And that figure is expected to rise when the health care reform law kicks in fully in 2014, and millions more Americans have health insurance—and so are more likely to see a doctor.
Possible solutions: training more nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to do some of the work currently done by doctors, and providing loan forgiveness to physicians-in-training who agree to serve in areas where the shortages are most extreme.
CONTROVERSY OVER WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH
Reproductive issues were all over the news in 2012. A few of the high points (or low, depending on your view):
The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion. (After a furor erupted, the bill was changed to require women to have an abdominal, not vaginal, ultrasound.) The federal government issued a rule requiring health insurance plans to provide free birth control. (The government later offered an exemption for religious institutions but the mandate still faces legal challenges.) Several politicians made inflammatory remarks about rape, including one who said women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant. And funding for Planned Parenthood continued to be hotly debated.
A story in the British Medical Journal this summer called out prolonged sitting as health hazard, saying sitting too much can shorten your life. The article’s researchers said people could add two years to their lives by limiting their sitting to a maximum of three hours each day. Consider that, office workers.
—Information from the Associated Press, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kaiser Health News and the Mayo Clinic was used in this report.