Year in Review: Top 10 Health Issues of 2015

Some of the past year’s biggest health stories

It was a big year for health news. Bad news—from outbreaks of the measles and foodborne illnesses to skyrocketing drug prices—was mixed with glimmers of hope and the seemingly impossible, including using the body’s immune system to fight cancer and research to slow biological aging.

Here is a roundup of some of the top-10 health issues of the past year.

1. Drug prices

Outrage over the high cost of medications intensified after some companies sharply raised prices for drugs they hadn’t developed, but instead bought the rights to. Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. drew criticism from doctors, hospitals and Congressmen after The Wall Street Journal reported the company had increased the price of two cardiac-care drugs by 525% and 212%, respectively. In the fall, Turing Pharmaceuticals AG was widely criticized after it boosted the price of the anti-parasite drug Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50. Turing founder Martin Shkreli was later arrested on unrelated fraud charges from previous work at a hedge fund. Mr. Shkreli, who resigned from Turing, has said he believes his arrest was related partly to the drug-price increases.

2. Cancer immunotherapy

Efforts to use the body’s immune system to fight tumors made big strides this year. The Food and Drug Administration approved the first immunotherapy drugs for lung cancer,Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s Opdivo and later Merck & Co.’s Keytruda, both of which treat non-small-cell lung cancer, the most common form of the disease. The FDA also approved the combined use of Bristol-Myers’s Opdivo and Yervoy to treat advanced melanoma. Both drugs were previously used individually to treat melanoma, and experts believe combining them has the potential to improve treatment. But the hefty price-tag of the drug combination—more than $250,000 per patient for the first full year—remains a concern.

3. Vaccinations

The measles outbreak that began in Disneyland eventually spread to affect nearly 200 people in 24 states, touching off concerns about people opting not to get their children vaccinated or who choose to delay the shots. The outbreak also drew attention to particular communities around the country—including California’s Orange County, where Disneyland is located—where a relatively large percentage of the population isn’t vaccinated. Pediatricians spoke of increasing pressures from parents to delay vaccines, and some doctors began setting policies to no longer see such patients. Public-health groups and officials doubled down on efforts to raise awareness of the importance of getting timely vaccines. The topic emerged in one of the Republican presidential candidates’ debates. And California joined West Virginia and Mississippi in passing laws that prevent parents from getting vaccine exemptions for philosophical and religious beliefs.

4. Cancer screening

New guidelines from the American Cancer Society raised the recommended starting age for mammograms to 45 from 40. After age 55, women should get mammograms every other year rather than annually, the guidelines said. Meanwhile, a large study found the number of men diagnosed with prostate cancer dropped significantly in recent years along with the number of men screened for the disease, using the so-called PSA test. That was welcome news for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which had been seeking to rein in routine testing for the disease. But many doctors and medical groups were outraged when Medicare officials proposed penalizing physicians who order PSA tests considered unnecessary.

5. Allergies

Eat peanuts early and often as an infant and the chances of developing an allergy to them later are greatly reduced. That was the takeaway from a highly anticipated study that is changing the way allergists and pediatricians treat allergies. The study found that 17.2% of children at risk for developing an allergy who avoided peanuts until age 5 ended up with a peanut allergy compared with just 3.2% who regularly ate peanuts. In August the American Academy of Pediatrics issued interim guidelines recommending introducing peanut-containing products to infants at risk of developing an allergy between 4 months and 11 months of age.

6. Foodborne illness

The E. coli and norovirus outbreaks among people who ate at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.restaurants sickened more than 100 people across the country in recent months. The outbreaks reveal large safety gaps in the way food is manufactured and processed, allowing microbes—including salmonella and listeria—to contaminate more foods. Foodborne infections show little to no overall reduction over the past nine years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more powerful strains of common foodborne bacteria continue to develop as microbes become resistant to many antibiotics used to treat illnesses they cause.

7. What’s in your age?

Increasingly less, according to scientists who distinguish between chronological and biological age. One study found the process of aging can begin relatively early in life, with some people aging three biological years for every one year of real time. A growing body of research, involving laboratory experiments on animals and observational studies of people, has shown drugs can delay the aging process. Scientists announced the start of aclinical trial to test a particular drug’s ability to prevent or delay some of the most debilitating diseases of old age, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.

8. Perils of meat

Steak and bacon lovers were none too pleased when the World Health Organization classified red meat and processed meat as potentially carcinogenic. The controversial report, published in October in the journal Lancet Oncology by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, reviewed 800 studies and said the data for processed meat was more clear-cut than for red meat. The meat industry, as to be expected, begged to differ.

8. Preventing heart disease

A new class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, known as PCSK9 inhibitors, gave people at high risk for heart disease who can’t take statins or get sufficient benefit from them a potential new drug to take. The FDA approved two such drugs this summer. But their anticipated high price has already prompted insurers to require rigorous evaluationsbefore covering the prescriptions and sparked a debate over what constitutes statin intolerance. Data from large studies testing whether the drugs actually prevent heart attacks are expected beginning in late 2016.

10. Dr. Tech

Fitbit, the Apple Watch, and dozens of smartphone apps and wearables have people keeping track of how much they sit, stand, walk, climb stairs and consume in calories. But smartphone apps and wearables are guiding more than just fitness and diet in the health space. They also are increasingly being used tomanage chronic conditions, postsurgical care, mental health and other serious disorders. Doctors are using the data to monitor treatments and conduct research.

By Sumathi Reddy

Source: The Wall Street Journal –