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Top 10 Health Stories: From Anthrax to Medical Fraud

The Year 2001 health news spanned the gamut from terror to hope

FRIDAY, Dec. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- From the unprecedented bacterial attacks on unsuspecting Americans to once-unimaginable medical breakthroughs, the health news in the year 2001 was both terrifying and awe-inspiring.

Following is a list of what the editors at HealthDay consider the Top 10 stories of the last 12 months.

1. Bioterrorism Hits Home

Bioterrorism became a new word in the healthcare lexicon as anthrax invaded the U.S. mail system. Two forms of the disease unnerved the nation -- inhalation anthrax and subcutaneous, or skin, anthrax. The anthrax spores were sent in letters addresssed primarily to media and political figures. Eighteen people were diagnosed with the disease, and five of them died, including two women with no apparent ties to either targeted group. An estimated 10,000 Americans, mostly postal workers and political aides, were thought to have been exposed to at least one form of the deadly bacteria. Many received prophylactic treatment with antibiotics such as Cipro or doxycycline. Meanwhile, the rush to stockpile adequate doses of vaccines for this threat and other biothreats, including smallpox, remains a national health-care priority.

2. The First Artificial Heart

A new type of artificial heart offered a glimmer of hope to victims of heart disease. Six patients received the AbioCor heart -- the first totally self-contained, man-made device, which doctors hope will one day save thousands of lives a year. Although three of the recipients died of health complications unrelated to the mechanical heart, three others remain alive, giving researchers optimism about this significant advance in medical biomechanics.

3. A Leukemia Success

Patients with a certain type of leukemia received the gift of a lifetime when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to Gleevec. The drug had proved enormously successful in clinical trials to combat chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). The oral treatment, hailed as a breakthrough that may even cure this form of leukemia, is also proving helpful for other blood cancers and the treatment of some solid tumors. Gleevec selectively targets cancer cells without harming normal cells. CML strikes an estimated 4,400 Americans a year, eventually killing half its victims.

4. Controversy Over Stem Cell Research

The world of politics and medicine collided when President Bush was forced to rule on government funding for stem cell research -- the use of human embryonic tissue for research on such ailments as Parkinson's disease and diabetes. Culminating a medical-ethical debate that kept lawmakers and doctors on edge for months, the final ruling was deemed a compromise -- limiting federal spending on research to some 60 existing lines of embryo-derived stem cells, while banning funds to create additional embryos for further research.

5. The Sept. 11 Emotional Aftermath

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 ushered in a new era of health concerns as the United States began struggling with its first collective case of post traumatic stress disorder. Following the devastating assaults on the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., health experts reported sharp increases in sleep disorders, mood swings, anxiety and panic attacks, eating disorders, memory and concentration difficulties, and other signs of extreme stress. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers reported a 12 percent increase in those seeking treatment. New Yorkers faced additional health threats from the fires that continued to burn for almost three months following the attack. The "WTC Cough" became a local health phenomenon as everyone from rescue workers to those living and working near "Ground Zero" became susceptible to chemical debris that continues to permeate the air of lower Manhattan.

6. A Breakthrough for Blood Poisoning

The FDA's approval of the drug Xigris (drotrecogin alfa) proved a major breakthrough in the treatment of sepsis, or blood poisoning, which is a potentially deadly toxic reaction to infection that attacks major organs. Blood poisoning affects 750,000 people a year, killing almost 30 percent. The first biochemical treatment for sepsis, Xigris is a genetically engineered version of a natural human protein. It works by controlling the body's reaction to inflammation, as well as clotting and bleeding.

7. A Setback for AIDS

People with AIDS suffered a setback with news of a growing resistance to the current war chest of available drug treatments. Researchers from the University of California warned that during the next four years, up to 42 percent of those with AIDS or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, could become resistant to at least one of several commonly used drug treatments -- up from 29 percent in 2000. Doctors say that over time, HIV mutates to escape destruction by the medications, thus increasing the need for continued development of new drugs.

8. The Girth of a Nation

This was the year the United States was officially declared a nation of tubbies, as Surgeon General David Thatcher issued a stern report in December on the health of the nation. Citing alarming weight gains nationwide -- almost 61 percent of Americans now qualify as obese -- the nation's top doctor warned the country to shape up or face dire health consequences, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, depression and several forms of cancer.

9. Medical Marijuana Takes a Hit

Advocates of the medical use of marijuana suffered a blow when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a limited ruling, voted against sanctioning the therapeutic use of the otherwise illegal drug. Citing no "medical benefits worthy of exception," the Court upheld the federal law controlling narcotics. The decision undercut earlier efforts by California legislators to distribute marijuana to cancer patients and other patients who claim it relieves pain and the side effects of some traditional medical treatments.

10. Diluting Cancer Drugs for Profit

Greed turned potentially deadly when Kansas City pharmacist Robert R. Courtney allegedly watered down more than 100 doses of the chemotherapy drugs Gemzar and Taxol in order to make more money, authorities said. Reportedly in debt to the Internal Revenue Service to the tune of $600,000 in back taxes, and behind on church pledges of $330,000, Courtney is accused of trying to increase his profit margins by diluting, changing and mislabeling the drugs, which were then given to unsuspecting cancer patients. He has pleaded not guilty.

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SOURCES: HealthScout News stories, 2001
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