The biggest health stories of 2012

This has been a very busy and occasionally dramatic year in the world of health.

In addition to the usual crop of research news, food recalls, and celebrity headlines, 2012 saw a landmark court ruling on health care, controversy over everything from supersize sodas to cancer philanthropy, and the saga of a young woman from Georgia who lost three of her limbs to bacteria but won the nation's heart with her optimism and pluck.

So grab a cup of coffee—according to a major study released in May, it might just prolong your life—and check out of the biggest health stories from the past year.


1. New-look school lunches
After years of public outcry about the poor nutritional quality of public-school lunches, Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the first revisions to the National School Lunch Program in 15 years. Now on the menu: fruits and veggies every day, skim milk, more whole grains, less fat and sodium, and portions tailored to a child's age.

Not everyone was happy with the change, however. Some students, angry at the smaller portions and blander food, staged school-lunch boycotts and registered their displeasure online in Facebook groups and YouTube videos.

2. Paula Deen diagnosed with diabetes
Celebrity chef Paula Deen, famous for the fat-laden dishes she serves up on the Food Network, kicked off the year by announcing she had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes three years earlier.

Deen endured some criticism for keeping her diagnosis private while continuing to push buttery, high-calorie fare (being overweight is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes). Even more unseemly, she timed her announcement to coincide with the launch of a promotional campaign for the diabetes drug Victoza.

With this speed bump behind her, Deen is now concocting lighter versions of her signature recipes and says she has lost 30 pounds.

3. Mystery illness in Le Roy
In January, TV cameras descended on the tiny town of Le Roy, N.Y., after more than a dozen girls and at least one boy at the local high school suddenly became afflicted with twitches, spasms, and uncontrollable outbursts reminiscent of Tourette's syndrome.

No one—not even Erin Brockovich, who came to investigate at the request of one of the mothers—could figure out what caused the symptoms. Environmental toxins, perhaps? Psychological stress manifesting as physical symptoms? Even "mass psychogenic illness"—better known as mass hysteria? The root cause remains a mystery, but the students gradually recovered with the help of antidepressants, antibiotics, and therapy.

4. Komen for the Cure vs. Planned Parenthood
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which has become one of the world's largest and most visible breast cancer charities thanks to its road races and pink ribbons, set off an uproar when it announced in January that it would no longer fund mammograms and other prevention services run by Planned Parenthood.

Critics of the move accused the foundation of caving to political pressure from groups opposed to abortion (one of the many services Planned Parenthood provides). Although the foundation's leaders denied this, the controversy and widespread outrage led them to reverse their decision within a matter of days.

5. Court upholds Obamacare
In June, in one of its biggest rulings in years, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many observers when it upheld the constitutionality of the highly controversial Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—better known as "Obamacare."

As a result, the provision requiring all Americans to obtain health insurance or face a fine—the so-called individual mandate—will go into effect as planned on January 1, 2014. Other pieces of the law are already in place, including those that allow young adults to stay on a parent's health plan until age 26 and that prohibit insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

6. Aimee Copeland's fight
One of this year's saddest stories—Aimee Copeland's battle with necrotizing fasciitis, a.k.a. flesh-eating bacteria—turned into one of the most heartwarming.

The saga began when the 24-year-old received a deep cut on her leg after falling from a homemade zip line. The cut opened the door to bacteria, and within days Copeland's leg had been amputated, her major organs had failed, and she was put on life support. She ultimately lost both of her hands and her other foot.

Yet throughout this ordeal Copeland's remarkably upbeat attitude was an inspiration to many. "I love life," she told Katie Couric in September. "It's a beautiful thing... even more so now."

7. New York City soda ban
In September, at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Board of Health approved a controversial measure prohibiting all sales of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces. Industry associations and many concerned citizens cried foul, calling the measure a violation of consumer freedom.

The soda ban—the first of its kind in the nation—is merely the latest Bloomberg-led public health initiative to address the city's obesity problem. (Half of all New Yorkers are overweight or obese.) The city has already banned trans fats from restaurant food and requires chain restaurants to disclose calorie counts on their menus.

8. Meningitis outbreak
This year nearly three dozen people have died in a headline-grabbing outbreak of meningitis, an inflammation of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. In early October, federal health officials traced the outbreak to contaminated steroid injections from the New England Compounding Center, a pharmacy operation in Framingham, Mass., that produced custom drug mixtures.

The injections, routinely used to relieve neck or back pain, turned out to contain the fungus Exserohilum rostratum, a common mold that wasn't previously known to make people sick. Some 14,000 people received the potentially tainted injections, and nearly 500 have fallen ill.

9. Salmonella recalls
In a year that saw its share of food recalls, a series of salmonella scares were among the worst. This fall, peanut butter contaminated with the bacteria sickened 41 people in 20 states, prompting the Food and Drug Administration to recall 100 or so peanut-based products from big-name retailers including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, and Target.

Peanuts weren't the only salmonella-tainted food. Recalls also targeted mangoes (127 people sickened in 15 states), ground beef (46 people in six states) and cantaloupe (261 people in 24 states). Though all four outbreaks led to hospitalizations, only three people died, all of them from consuming contaminated cantaloupe.

10. Whooping cough roars back
At 34,000 cases and counting, 2012 is shaping up to be a record year for whooping cough (or pertussis). So far 16 people have died, mostly babies under the age of three months. Washington State has been among the hardest hit, with about 4,500 reported cases in 2012—a seven-fold increase from 2010.

Experts attribute the troubling trend to the waning effectiveness of the pertussis vaccine over time. Health officials advise that children get the recommended five doses (starting at two months of age) and that adolescents and adults receive the appropriate booster shots, such as the so-called Tdap vaccine.

11. Alzheimer's gene discovery
Finally, some good news on the Alzheimer's front: Researchers reported in July that they had identified a rare gene mutation that protects against this devastating dementia. The variant was found in the APP gene, which has previously been linked with a number of mutations that can increase the risk of Alzheimer's.

In this case, however, the mutation appears to prevent the brain-withering build-up of beta amyloid protein that characterizes Alzheimer's. Although the discovery doesn't herald a cure or a treatment yet, it's a notable breakthrough that points the way forward and strengthens the view that Alzheimer's is indeed caused by amyloid accumulation in the brain.

12. Amanda Todd's suicide
The October suicide of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, and the ensuing media attention, turned the spotlight once again onto the tragic mental-health consequences of bullying. Todd, 15, endured one torment after another over the years—including cyberbullying and a physical assault at school—and posted a final, heart-wrenching cry for help on YouTube a month before taking her own life.

Todd's is merely the latest high-profile suicide linked to bullying. Coincidentally, just weeks after her death, a nationwide study of young people in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine reported that being victimized by peers more than doubled the odds of suicidal thoughts.

13. West Nile strikes
This has been the worst year for mosquito-borne West Nile virus since 2003, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 5,000 cases, including 228 deaths, had been reported as of November, and about half of the cases involved brain complications such as meningitis or encephalitis.

Texas was the hardest hit state, reporting more than a third of all cases; Dallas County instituted aerial insecticide spraying for the first time in half a century. The West Nile tally can vary widely from year to year. In 2011, there were only 712 cases, versus 6,830 in 2003.

14. Arsenic and brown rice
This fall, a series of tests conducted by Consumer Reports uncovered alarmingly high levels of arsenic in many rice products, including cereals fed to infants and children, organic products, and brown rice. Arsenic can cause bladder, lung cancer, and skin cancer, and can also up the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Arsenic was found in all 233 rice samples tested, and some baby cereals contained five times as much as comparable non-rice products (such as those made with oatmeal). Consumer Reports, which has also found elevated arsenic levels in apple and grape juice, is calling for stricter federal standards on the chemical.

15. Next-generation weight-loss drugs
In June, the FDA approved the first prescription weight-loss drug in 13 years: lorcaserin, also known by its brand name, Belviq. The agency had denied the drug back in 2010 due to concerns over possible side effects (including heart problems), but after reviewing additional safety data decided the drug's benefits outweighed the potential risks.

Less than a month later, the FDA approved a second weight-loss drug, Qsymia. Although there are some lingering safety concerns with Qsymia, too, these two drugs are expected to provide doctors a new way to fight the country's stubborn obesity epidemic.

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