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WebMD's Top Health Stories of 2011

The 5 Most Significant Health Stories of the Year
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Contaminated Cantaloupes continued...

Those tainted cantaloupe set a dubious U.S. record in 2011: most deaths in a listeria outbreak. The surprising source of the outbreak was traced to a single Colorado farm.

It all started on Sept. 2, when the Colorado Health Department notified the CDC of a cluster of cases of listeriosis. By Sept. 6, sick people who filled out CDC questionnaires reported eating "Rocky Ford" cantaloupe. On Sept 10, the FDA was knocking at the door of Jensen Farms. The company's broker stopped distributing the melons and urged stores to remove them from shelves.

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.

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