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Dubious Drugs, Tainted Foods Top 2008's Health Stories

WEDNESDAY Dec. 31, 2008 -- Doubts over the safety of diabetes and heart treatments, disappointing results for vitamins as cancer fighters, and the withdrawal of over-the-counter cold medicines for kids were some of 2008's top health stories.

But there was good news, too, including a historic drop in deaths from both heart disease and cancer, and a breakthrough in the search for a malaria vaccine.

Here are some of the biggest health headlines for 2008:

Troubles Surface for Heart, Diabetes Treatments

Throughout 2008, data emerged supporting the notion that two blockbuster diabetes medications -- GlaxoSmithKline's Avandia and Takeda's Actos -- raised heart risks for users. The studies came on the heels of a "black box" label warning slapped on the drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration late in 2007. In December, another study found that use of the drugs doubled the odds of bone fractures for women.

Earlier in the year, another major trial found that the widely used cholesterol medication Vytorin, which combines simvastatin with a second drug, ezetimibe, was no better at lowering LDL cholesterol than simvastatin alone.

And, at year's end, debate continued on whether very strict control of blood sugar actually helps diabetics cut their risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular troubles. Two major trials, called VADT and ACCORD, each found that the strategy was either ineffective in lowering heart risks (VADT) or actually boosted the death risk by 22 percent (ACCORD).

Standard Medical Tests Take a Hit

The value of a trip to the doctor got a little more dubious in 2008, as a few key diagnostic tests lost some of their luster. One study found that the EKG -- used for decades to assess heart risk -- may not predict cardiovascular troubles in patients struggling with angina. Another study suggested that mammograms often pick up breast cancers that, if left alone, would regress on their own. And a third report found that colonoscopy could miss as many as 40 percent of tumors, because it has a "blind spot" for growths on the right side of the colon.

Take Your Vitamins? Maybe Not

A flurry of trials released late in the year suggested that vitamins A, C, and E do not cut users' cancer risk, and vitamin B won't help ward off either Alzheimer's or heart disease. On the up side, one major trial touted vitamin D's power to help the heart.

Imported Foods, Drugs Raise Alarms

A summer outbreak of salmonella sickened more than 1,400 Americans and was finally traced to tainted jalapeno and serrano peppers imported from Mexico. Even more troubling were the 81 U.S. deaths attributed to the blood-thinner heparin -- deliberately contaminated with a man-made chemical during the manufacturing process in China. China faced its own worries, as thousands of babies in that country were fed milk tainted with another contraband "filler," melamine. No U.S. children were affected, the FDA said.

Over-the-Counter Cold Meds Not for the Very Young

In October, major manufacturers and the FDA announced that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be used by children younger than 4 years old. The move came as welcome news to pediatricians, who had long pointed to data suggesting that the remedies don't help ease cold symptoms in kids, and in rare cases may even cause harm.

Progress in the War Against Cancer, Heart Disease

Perhaps the best health news of 2008 came in a report released by the American Cancer Society in November. It found that, for the first time since statistics began to be compiled in 1998, the number of U.S. men and women who developed cancer or died from the disease actually dropped. And two weeks later, the American Heart Association announced that U.S. death rates from heart disease and stroke had fallen by about 30 percent over the previous decade.

Good News, Bad News on Vaccines

Early in the year, researchers at Merck & Co. released disappointing results on the second AIDS vaccine ever tested: The shot failed to ward off HIV infection and in rare cases may have even raised recipients' risks of getting the virus. But in early December, two major trials found early signs of success for a vaccine against another global killer -- malaria.

Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan Leaving Lasting Harm

Studies of returning U.S. veterans suggest that, for many troops, war's impact may linger for years to come. In December, an Institute of Medicine report found that brain injuries sustained in combat or roadside blasts can give rise to depression, dementia and other psychological woes. In October, a disturbing report found that as many as one in seven female troops fall victim to sexual harassment or rape while on active duty. And a report released back in January found that concussions caused by roadside bomb blasts boost troops' odds for long term post-traumatic stress disorder.

Posted: December 2008


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