Dec. 17, 2007 -- Every day, WebMD reports several important health news stories. Some of these stories have a single, immediate impact. Others unfold over weeks or months.
Each of these stories stands out from the hundreds of news leads WebMD receives each week. And some stand out from the rest.
Here are the 10 most important news stories we reported in 2007, as selected by the news editors at WebMD.
No. 1: Deadly Kid Stuff: Toy Recalls and More
WebMD's top story isn't just one story. In more than a baker's dozen of stories, month after month, WebMD reported an astonishing wave of unsafe-product recalls, most of them children's toys.
The recall snowball began gathering speed in early August when nearly a million Fisher-Price toys -- including the trusted Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer characters -- turned out to be coated with lead paint. Signaling a trend, the toys were all made in China.
That was scary. But not two weeks later, Mattel recalled more than 18 million Mattel toys -- 9.5 million in the U.S. -- including nearly 700,000 Barbie play sets. Most of these toys had a defective design: They carried powerful magnets that could detach, posing a deadly hazard to children who swallowed them. (This same design flaw was responsible for Mattel's November 2006 recall of 4.4 million Polly Pocket dolls, including 2.4 million in the U.S.)
Some of those Mattel toys, however, didn't carry magnets. Their hazard: lead paint. And these lead-painted toys turned out to be the tip of an iceberg.
Within two weeks, Mattel announced further recalls of hundreds of thousands of lead-painted toys. Before another two weeks had passed, Mattel and Fisher-Price recalled 800,000 more lead-painted toys. An additional half-million lead-painted toys from other manufacturers joined the list, with yet another half million toys added in early October. All of the toys were made in China.
Lead paint wasn't the only hazardous substance coating kids' toys in 2007. In November, WebMD reported the incredible news that beads in 4 million Aqua Dots craft kits carried a chemical that, when swallowed, converts into the "date-rape" drug GHB. At least two U.S. kids slipped into comas after swallowing Aqua Dots. Fortunately, both recovered. The craft kits were made in China.
Meanwhile, other recalls seemed to come at a furious pace. September saw the recall of 1 million Simplicity cribs, which became death traps if their drop-side was assembled upside down. At least three babies died. In October, risk of serious head injury led to the recall of a million Bumbo Baby sitter seats.
Not all unsafe products are kids' stuff. One of the scariest recalls in recent memory was the May recall of Advanced Medical Optics' Complete Moisture Plus contact lens solution due to contamination with an infection-causing parasite. What made this so scary is that this news came less than a year after Bausch & Lomb recalled its ReNu with MoistureLoc contact lens solution. The MoistureLoc solution, although probably not contaminated during manufacture, failed to prevent growth of a dangerous fungus.
No 2: Food Bites Back
Food safety is, one might say, a growing issue in the U.S. Whether you're a vegetarian or a hamburger lover, your menu likely includes one of the foodstuffs recalled in 2007.
The first major food scare of the year came with a warning that certain jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter might harbor salmonella, one of the major bacterial causes of food poisoning.
Perhaps the oddest recall of the year came in the summer, when a snack food called Veggie Booty was recalled due to potential salmonella contamination of its seasoning mix. Also included in the recall was a sister product, Super Veggie Tings Crunchy Corn Sticks.
Nobody was laughing, however, when Castleberry Foods warned customers that some of its canned products -- including hot dog chili sauces -- carried deadly botulism bacteria. At least four people were hospitalized with serious botulism poisoning. It was the first U.S. case of botulism in commercially canned goods for several decades.
But not the last. A few days later, Castleberry expanded the recall to include more than 80 canned products for humans (as well as four pet products).
Consumers were rattled. A few days before the botulism warning, Americans were stunned to learn that an upscale hotel amenity, toothpaste, contained a dangerous chemical. Manufacturer Gilchrest & Soames said the chemical did not belong in the Chinese-made toothpaste.
And a few days after the botulism warning, Americans learned that one of their favorite healthy snacks -- bags of ready-to-eat baby carrots -- might carry shigella bacteria. Within a week, we learned that bags of fresh spinach might carry salmonella. And in September, Dole recalled bags of fresh bagged salad suspected of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination.
In the fall, Topps Meat Co. announced the recall of 331,000 pounds of frozen ground beef due to E. coli 0157:H7 contamination. That seemed like a lot of beef -- until Oct. 1, when the recall swelled to include 21.7 million pounds of frozen hamburgers carrying the dangerous bacterial strain.
Beef patties weren't the only thing in our freezers harboring bad bugs. On Oct. 10, we learned that frozen chicken and turkey pot pies bearing Banquet or generic labels (all made by ConAgra) might be contaminated with salmonella.
Even then, our freezers weren't safe. On Nov. 1, we had to check them again to see if we'd bought any of the nearly 5 million Totino's and Jeno's Pepperoni Pizzas recalled by General Mills due to possible E. coli lurking in the pepperoni.
No. 3: Bad Bugs
Two emerging infections captured America's attention in 2007.
MRSA -- methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- didn't exactly appear overnight. It's been growing into a huge problem for hospitals for years. Were we too complacent? It now seems so.
But the most alarming MRSA news is about a second mutant strain on the loose in our communities. It's a problem that's been building for years. But what caught everyone's eye was that annual MRSA deaths now exceed annual AIDS deaths.
The second scary bug of 2007 was a mutant killer cold virus, a form of adenovirus type 14 or Ad14 that can cause sudden, very severe respiratory problems. The 2006 death of an infant girl brought the virus to the CDC's attention. More concerning was the May 2007 outbreak in Oregon, suggesting that the bug was out there in U.S. communities.
Fortunately, most people who catch Ad14 get only minor symptoms. Even though the bug is new and scary, it's not nearly in the same deadly league as flu and RSV viruses, which kill thousands every year. But as the year draws to a close, it's still not clear whether the germ will fade away or become a factor in the winter cold and flu season.
No. 4: Drug-Resistant TB in the Air
Andrew Speaker is no health hero. But the young Atlanta lawyer inadvertently did more than anyone else to bring the international problem of drug-resistant tuberculosis to Americans' attention.
Despite being warned that he might have the dreaded extremely drug-resistant form of tuberculosis -- XDR TB, resistant to almost all tuberculosis drugs -- Speaker took his infection on a trans-Atlantic airplane ride.
Fortunately, nobody caught the infection. And Speaker eventually turned out to have multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR TB), a somewhat less dangerous TB bug. Even so, he required lung surgery to remove damaged tissues. That surgery went well, but he still has to stay on TB drugs for two years.
Georgia officials plan to watch over the chastened man to make sure he completes treatment. But it wasn't entirely his fault. Even though Speaker acted irresponsibly, federal officials later admitted they could have done a lot more.
No. 5: Avandia Hopes on the Ropes?
The diabetes drugs Avandia and Actos are the two members of a class of diabetes drug known as the glitazones. (Avandaryl and Avandamet are combination drugs containing Avandia; Duetact is a combination drug containing Actos.)
The state-of-the-art drugs target one of the body's important signaling pathways, increasing the body's sensitivity to insulin. This action helps many people with type 2 diabetes who might otherwise need insulin shots.
But it's not yet clear exactly what else the drugs do. In May, Cleveland Clinic researchers set off a firestorm of controversy when they reanalyzed clinical trial data and found Avandia increased heart attack risk by 43%. Avandia maker GlaxoSmithKline says the Cleveland Clinic study is flawed and strongly defends the drug's safety.
Even with the possible increase, Avandia's heart attack risk is rather small. But since people with diabetes already run a high risk of heart attack -- and since Actos does not seem to increase heart attack risk -- the report spelled trouble for Avandia. Experts urged patients to stay calm.
Unfortunately, a study that investigated Avandia's heart attack risks yielded inconclusive results. An FDA advisory panel convened to look into the matter said the drug does seem to increase heart attack risk, but then voted 22-1 to keep the drug on the market.
That wasn't the end of trouble for Avandia. In December, a Salk Institute study showed that Avandia -- and probably Actos, too -- promotes bone loss and osteoporosis. And a Canadian study -- disputed by GlaxoSmithKline -- links Avandia to higher rates of heart attack and heart failure in older diabetes patients.
No 6: Autism Coming Into Focus
Scientists still can't agree on whether autism rates are increasing. But in February 2007, the CDC reported data from 14 states suggesting that autism spectrum disorders affect one in every 150 U.S. kids. That's a bit more common than previously thought.
Experts do agree that early treatment makes a huge long-term difference. And now researchers say it's possible to identify about half of kids with autism at age 14 months. Moreover, one study suggested that kids who don't respond to their names by age 1 may have autism. Findings such as these led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend autism screening for all kids at age 18 months and again at age 24 months.
A long-term study of autism offers hope. It shows that autism symptoms improve in adulthood, especially for children whose autism does not involve mental retardation and who have some degree of language ability.
What causes autism? Experts don't know. A small but vocal minority of parents believe that thimerosal, a type of mercury used as a vaccine preservative, is to blame. They've taken the case to court, although serious researchers are nearly unanimous in rejecting the thimerosal theory. New research reported in 2007 shows that children exposed to thimerosal in the womb are not more likely to have autism.
A CDC study recently showed no consistent link between thimerosal and a wide range of neurological symptoms. But the study did not look into autism, which is the topic of another CDC study. Release of that study is expected to be a top story in 2008.
No. 7: Kids' Cough Medicine: Out Cold?
2007 was barely under way when the CDC warned parents that cough and cold medicines can be deadly for kids younger than 2 years old. The culprit: too-high doses of a common decongestant called pseudoephedrine.
Fast-forward to the October meeting of an expert FDA advisory panel. The panel voted 13-9 that over-the-counter cough medicines not be used in children younger than 6. By a 15-7 vote, the panel voted to permit the drugs' use in kids aged 6 to 12.
What does this mean to parents? Doctors deeply involved in the issue offered answers to hard questions suggested by WebMD readers.
Will the FDA ban the drugs for young kids? That's not clear. While the FDA usually follows its panels' advice, it does not always do so. And makers of the medications strongly opposed an outright ban.
Some parents aren't waiting for the FDA to act. A December 2007 poll showed that a third of U.S. parents already have stopped giving cough and cold medicines to kids younger than 6.
On the other hand, some parents don't care what the FDA says. Half of parents in the poll say they'll keep giving the drugs to their young children.
No. 8: Stem Cell Breakthrough
Embryonic stem cells are the ultimate transformer, capable of becoming literally any kind of cell the body needs. That's why so many researchers, patients, and patient advocates so eagerly support stem cell research.
The problem is that these cells come from embryos. Even when an embryo is created in the laboratory, with no chance of developing into a fetus, the idea of destroying it is morally repugnant to many people. U.S. law severely restricts research on embryonic stem cells.
That's been a major roadblock to research. But now there may be a way around it. Researchers working independently in Japan and in the U.S. now say they can reprogram human skin cells to become embryonic-like stem cells.
Having overcome this hurdle, researchers face others. The biggest hurdle is that this reprogramming requires infecting the cells with viruses that carry potentially cancer-causing genes. But researchers seem confident that they can leap these barriers, too.
Will the reprogrammed cells work as well as embryonic stem cells? That's not entirely a sure bet. But a new study shows what might be possible. In mice, researchers were able to use the reprogrammed cells to treat sickle cell anemia.
No. 9: Allī : Weight-Loss Friend or Foe?
In case you haven't been to a drugstore since last spring, we're talking about Allī -- with a macron over the "i" so you'll pronounce it like the trusty two-syllable word "ally" (rhymes with "pal eye").
And Allī does want to be your pal, not your parent. Unlike many weight loss drugs, Allī promises results only to those ready to work for them. Whatever weight you're able to lose with the diet and exercise program that comes with the drug, Allī promises you "can" lose up to 50% more weight if you take -- and keep taking -- the pills.
"You don't just try Allī -- you commit to it," the Allī web site says. "If you have the will, we have the power."
Will Americans buy it? The answer appears to be yes. After a huge marketing blitz, GlaxoSmithKline says the drug racked up $49 million in sales in its first three months -- 26% higher than the company had forecast. Allī now accounts for more than half of all sales of over-the-counter diet pills, according to research cited by Brandweek.com.
GlaxoSmithKline hopes to work out reimbursement plans with insurers. But most Allī users are paying for the pills themselves -- $50 to $60 for a 30-day supply.
Those side effects can be a bummer. Allī works by blocking digestion of fat, so fats you eat pass right through your bowel. If you eat more than 15 grams of fat at any meal (a hamburger and small order of fries has 38 fat grams), that extra fat means loose stools and gas with an oily discharge.
GlaxoSmithKline isn't downplaying the side effects. In fact, the company suggests that the side effects are a sign that you're still eating too much fat.
So does Allī really work? It's clearly a benefit for some people. Yet it offers only "modest" weight loss, according to a 2007 analysis of studies of Xenical (the prescription-dose version of Allī), Meridia, and Acomplia (approved overseas but, as Zimulti, not in the U.S.).
"People tend to be disappointed with the degree of weight loss they achieve with these drugs, even when they know that modest weight loss will improve their health," University of Alberta researcher Raj Padwal, MD, tells WebMD. "People who are desperate to lose weight are usually willing to try drugs, but if they don't see the results they want in two or three months they don't tend to stay on them."
Over studies lasting a year or more, Padwal and colleagues found that Xenical users lost an average of 6 pounds.
So what's the bottom line? Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD, says diet drugs can help some people, but only in the context of a balanced, restricted-calorie diet and regular exercise.
And if you're willing to do that, you might just try being patient. Sidney Wolfe, MD, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, notes that you can lose one-half to one pound a week by adding 2 miles per day of walking to your exercise regimen and by eating 300 fewer calories per day.
"It's slow, but it works and has no risks," Wolfe tells WebMD.
No. 10: Soda Battle Pops
Can just one soda a day hurt your heart, even if it's just a diet soda?
That was the provocative conclusion from one of the most controversial health news stories of 2006. It came from a study, published in a major medical journal, from Boston University researchers who analyzed diet data on 3,500 of the men and women in the huge Framingham Offspring Study that began in 1971.
The researchers found that people who drank one or more sodas a day -- regardless of whether they were sugared or diet sodas -- had a 50% higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
A person with metabolic syndrome has three of the following five criteria: a large waistline, elevated blood pressure, elevated fasting blood sugar, elevated fasting triglycerides, or reduced HDL or "good" cholesterol. If you have metabolic syndrome, your risk of diabetes and heart disease is greatly increased.
Drinking one soda a day does not give a person metabolic syndrome. But for whatever reason (replacing healthier beverages? a marker for a poor diet? creating a craving for sweets?), soda drinkers have this extra risk.
That study might not have had such a huge impact if it hadn't come on the heels of an earlier analysis of 88 soda studies by Yale University researchers. That study found that on days when people drank soft drinks, they took in more calories than they did on days they didn't consume soft drinks.
Even lab rats aren't immune. Another 2007 study found that juvenile rats fed low-calorie foods later overate when fed similar-tasting full-calorie foods. So should we stop letting our kids drink diet sodas? Not because of this study, child obesity expert Goutham Rao, MD, tells WebMD.
"Parents often ask me if their children should drink diet sodas," says Rao, director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "I tell them that diet soda is better than regular soda, but my preference would be water or low-fat milk."
The soft drink story didn't begin in 2007. A study released at the very end of 2006 showed that little girls who drank lots of sweetened soda were more likely to become obese teens.
The story isn't likely to end here, either. But that's not likely to change the advice from Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD. Zelman's bottom line: Soft drinks, even those fortified with vitamins and minerals, aren't health food. They can be enjoyed by healthy people -- but only in the context of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.