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WebMD's Top Health Stories of 2011

The 5 Most Significant Health Stories of the Year

Vaccine/Autism Study a Fraud

In 1998, a scientific study seemed to confirm a horrible theory. It found evidence that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism in perfectly healthy children.

The study didn't prove anything, but it fueled an anti-vaccine movement that kept many children from receiving the vaccine. As recently as last year, measles and mumps outbreaks in the U.S. and in Europe could be traced to parents afraid to vaccinate their children.

Other, better studies found no link between the vaccine and autism. Eventually, 10 of the study's researchers repudiated the findings. But lead researcher Andrew Wakefield, MD, continued to promote the vaccine/autism link.

Then, in early 2011, the prestigious U.K. medical journal BMJ published damning evidence that Wakefield committed deliberate fraud.

That evidence, compiled by investigative journalist Brian Deer, convinced the BMJ editors that Wakefield did not merely make mistakes, but that he faked his results.

Despite this evidence, vaccine safety continues to worry many parents.

Among parents who responded to WebMD's vaccine safety survey earlier this year:

  • Two-thirds said they had either questioned vaccinating their kids, or had actually refused a recommended child or teen vaccination.
  • Two-thirds said they had searched online for vaccine information.
  • Despite concerns, 77% said they are vaccinating their children according to the recommended schedule.

Some parents apparently still are willing to take very real risks to avoid vaccinating their children. Near the end of the year, WebMD debunked an Internet scheme to give kids "natural" chicken pox by giving them mail-order lollipops licked by sick kids.

Here’s the catch: You can't get chicken pox that way -- but you could get a nasty staph infection.

Stem-Cell Breakthrough?

For every disease that has no cure, patients scan the horizon for signs of hope. Hope that even if the cure arrives too late for them, it will spare others from suffering in the future.

Stem cell treatments, in particular, have raised these hopes for a cure to many diseases. But we weren’t hearing much in the way of actual positive results, until this year. In what may be the dawn of a new era for people with heart failure, 14 patients' condition vastly improved after a stem-cell treatment in an early phase clinical trial.

The patients all had bypass surgery after one or more heart attacks. But their hearts never regained normal function. Stem cells harvested from a tiny bit of heart tissue removed during surgery were grown to large numbers in a lab. About a million of these stem cells were reinfused into the patients' hearts.

It's the first use of heart stem cells in humans. More importantly, it's the first therapy to treat heart failure itself, and not just the symptoms.

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