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The Top 10 Health Stories of 2006

Vaccines, Unsafe Food, Inhaled Insulin: WebMD Picks the Most Important Medical News of the Year

7. Plan B Morning-After Pill Goes Over the Counter

When a woman's first-choice method of birth control, there's themorning-after pill.

There are two morning-after pills -- Plan B and Preven. To prevent pregnancy, these emergency contraceptives must be used soon after intercourse.

That's less of a problem, thanks to this year's FDA approval of over-the-counter sales of Plan B.

The approval has some strings attached. Only stores staffed by a health professional can sell Plan B without a prescription. And women under age 18 still need a doctor's prescription.

Plan B cannot cause an abortion. If taken too late, women who become pregnant after taking Plan B have normal pregnancies.

When taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, Plan B prevents pregnancy about 99% of the time.

Plan B is even more effective when taken within 24 hours of intercourse. Obviously, over-the-counter availability makes this more likely for more women who choose not to become pregnant.

8. Skin Cancer Gene Therapy: A New Beginning

This year, all that talk about gene therapy became a reality.

Last August, National Cancer Institute researchers reported success with a gene therapy for skin cancer.

Two patients with what would normally be fatal, late-stage melanoma were freed of the disease. Unfortunately, the treatment didn't work on 15 other patients.

The still-experimental gene therapy uses a virus to transfer a gene into a kind of immune cell called a T cell. The gene carries the genetic code for a specific, tumor-targeting molecule. Once T cells are armed with this molecule, they root out tumor cells.

Obviously, a lot of work remains to be done. But NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni says there's hope that the technique will work not only for skin cancer, but also for a broad range of other common cancers.

9. Inhaled Insulin: A Slow Start

For people with diabetes, 2006 marks the beginning of a new era: no-shot insulin.

Previously, people who needed insulin had to take the life-saving hormone by injection. In January, the FDA approved an inhalable insulin product called Exubera.

Market analysts predicted it would be a blockbuster. It yet may be. But patient and doctor uptake has been slow.

Some doctors are worried about the long-term safety of inhaled insulin -- especially its effects on lung function. They suggest that it should be reserved for patients who cannot or will not use needles.

These questions will, eventually, be resolved. Meanwhile, Exubera marks the start of an era of new options for people with diabetes.

10. Universal AIDS Testing: A Bold Plan

The next time you go to your doctor, you may get a new test --routine HIV test.

For the first time in the history of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, the CDC has recommended universal HIV testing.

Why? The old system of voluntary testing simply isn't working. Every year, the CDC estimates, 40,000 Americans join the 1.1 million U.S. residents infected with the AIDS virus.

But here's the scariest number: some 250,000 Americans carry HIV but don't know it yet. This means they will not get treatment when it can do them the most good. And it means they will unwittingly transmit the disease to others.

With routine testing, doctors will give HIV tests to every patient who does not specifically opt out of testing.

There is a hitch. HIV testing is a benefit only when it's linked to AIDS treatment. And there's already a shortage of funds -- and health workers -- for AIDS treatment in the U.S.AIDS treatment in the U.S.


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