WebMD's Top Health Stories of 2011

The 5 Most Significant Health Stories of the Year

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on November 28, 2011
7 min read

What sets important health stories apart is that they involve all of us on a personal level -- even if we don’t know it at the time.

It may be a story that transfixes us because its impact is immediate -- or it may be a story that’s a bit under the radar but may later change the way we look at health.

For that reason, choosing five stories out of thousands is never easy, because only some are obvious.

This year, WebMD chose stories that challenged our ideas about diet and nutrition, about public health, and about our understanding of disease.

Our first looks at something we do every day, and how we struggle to do it right.

There are good reasons why diet and nutrition is the most popular topic on WebMD.

We know that diet determines health, but we’re confused. It seems as if the definition of a healthy diet keeps changing. Weight loss advice keeps changing. What we see on reality TV shows bears little resemblance to, well, reality. This comes against the backdrop of the U.S. obesity epidemic -- which last year got even worse -- and the rising tide of type 2 diabetes.

Then in June, government health agencies dropped a bombshell that added fire to the debate: They blew up the venerable food pyramid. In place of the pyramid, a plate -- MyPlate.gov -- showing which foods we should be eating, with an eye on portion size.

Most of the advice was relatively simple, such as make half of your plate fruits and vegetables. Simple or not, it highlighted the ongoing concerns of the WebMD audience. What should we eat? What is the best diet?

Readers keep searching for answers to these questions, throughout WebMD:

Want to weigh in? Discussions are ongoing in WebMD's Eating & Diet Community.

Fresh melons are good for you. Except for cantaloupe crawling with listeria bacteria, like those sold across the U.S. in the summer of 2011.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Of the 14 patients analyzed so far, heart function improved dramatically. And in the eight patients seen one year after treatment, improvement appears to have continued. Moreover, the scars on patients hearts -- areas of dead tissue killed during their heart attacks -- are healing.

And patients aren't just doing better on measures of heart function. They report vastly improved quality of life and ability to perform daily tasks.

How big of a deal is this? WebMD asked an independent expert not involved in the study.

"This is a groundbreaking study of extreme importance," said Joshua Hare, MD, director of the University of Miami's Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute.

A word of caution: Not all promising clinical research results in a treatment. A case in point is the first human trial of stem cells to heal people paralyzed with spine injuries.

Despite a promising beginning, the company that makes the stem cells this year closed the clinical trial and stopped developing the treatment.

But undoubtedly, the research will continue elsewhere, perhaps leading to another story of the year.