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WebMD's Top Health Stories of 2011

The 5 Most Significant Health Stories of the Year

Contaminated Cantaloupes continued...

But it wasn't until late on Sept. 12 that the CDC was able to warn people at high risk of serious listeriosis to avoid Rocky Ford cantaloupe.

Cases continued to add up. The interest in the story was reflected in our page views to listeria content, which increased by more than 700% in October.

WebMD readers learned that listeria bacteria are widespread in the environment. Although outbreaks are rare, sporadic cases occur all the time. Most at risk: elderly people and people with lowered immunity. This latter group includes pregnant women, who risk miscarriage or stillbirth if infected.

By mid-November, the listeria outbreak had become the most widespread ever in the U.S., with 28 states reporting cases.

Adding to the tragedy, among the deaths was at least one miscarriage. But that's far fewer than in the previous record listeria outbreak in 1985. Traced to a type of Mexican cheese, that outbreak led to 20 miscarriages and 10 infant deaths.

Confusion Over Prostate, Breast, and Cervical Cancer Screening

We're told over and over again that cancer is most curable when detected and treated at its earliest stages. So it seems obvious that screening everyone for cancer is a really good idea.

Why shouldn't we take advantage of every cancer screening test that's out there?

Here's why not: Screening has harms as well as benefits. Most suspicious screening test results turn out to be false alarms. That can mean anxiety, cost, unnecessary biopsies, and even unnecessary surgery.

But finding cancers while they're still curable saves lives. So any suggestion that a screening test might be unneeded ignites controversy.

The biggest brouhaha came when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended against screening men for prostate cancer via routine PSA blood tests. The tests have become so common that doctors have often ordered the test without discussing it with patients.

The USPSTF recommendation still is drawing heat from the American Urological Association -- and by prostate cancer advocacy groups -- that feel the PSA test's benefits outweigh its harms. But the American Cancer Society says men should only get the test after a serious discussion of the benefits (curing early prostate cancer) and the risks (impotence and/or incontinence from treatment that may not be necessary).

It's the job of the USPSTF to set out screening guidelines based on a cold, hard look at the best available data. Or, as Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society tells WebMD, the job is not to ration screening but to promote rational screening.

Late in 2010, the USPSTF said women at low risk of breast cancer should put off getting regular mammograms until age 50. That totally confused most U.S. women, who have been told over and over again to start at age 40.

The controversy continued in 2011 when the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said women in their 40s should have a mammogram every year, just like older women.

In another confusing change, the USPSTF this year said women under age 21 do not need cervical cancer screening, and that all women need less frequent screening than previously recommended.

This obviously is a category that will continue to be as important in 2012 as in 2011.

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