Year in Review: 10 Health Happenings of 2009

From the push for health reform to the battle against pandemic swine flu, 2009 was a busy year.

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As the final hours of 2009 evaporated, U.S. News paused to reflect on the year's memorable health and medical science happenings, from progress toward a new president's ambitious agenda—revamping the nation's healthcare system—to the first influenza pandemic in 40 years to Michael Jackson's lethal dose of anesthesia medication propofol, which he reportedly used often to cope with his insomnia. Here's a roundup of 10 of the most interesting:

Mammography wars reignited. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force startled the medical world and women everywhere with its November announcement of revised mammography guidelines, which went against the perceived wisdom that more screening is better. The influential government panel of medical experts butted heads with other professional organizations when it pushed back the age at which women should begin having routine mammograms—to age 50, not 40—and reduced the frequency to once every two years, not annually. (The American Cancer Society, for example, maintains that yearly mammograms should begin at age 40.) The panel questioned the value of mammography for women older than 74 and also advised against teaching women to do breast self-exams.

Days later, women got more perplexing news when the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists scaled back on its cervical cancer screening guidelines, saying that women should postpone a first Pap smear until age 21 and be rescreened less often than previously advised. While all these revisions were based on the latest medical evidence and were positioned as efforts to avoid subjecting women to the harms of screening tests (like false positives or overtreatment) where the benefits are minimal, outrage and confusion ensued.

[Read Bernadine Healy's perspective on the new mammography guidelines. For more, see 11 Screening Tests You Should (or Shouldn't) Consider.]

Big Tobacco gets policed. On June 22, the Food and Drug Administration got historic power to regulate tobacco products when President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. Three months later, the federal agency flexed its new regulatory muscle when it banned candy, clove, and fruit-flavored cigarettes in an effort to reduce the number of youngsters who get hooked on the habit, according to an agency news release.

A boon for embryonic stem cell research. On March 9, scientists rejoiced when President Obama signed an executive order reversing a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research imposed by President Bush. The Bush administration allowed the government to dish out federal dollars for research on embryonic stem cell lines only if they were "created before an arbitrary date, Aug. 9, 2001, but prohibited research on cell lines created after that date," according to a White House fact-sheet. Douglas Melton, codirector of Harvard Stem Cell Institute, told U.S. News contributing editor Nancy Shute last January that under the ban, he and others working with embryonic stem cells had to keep that research quarantined from the rest of their lab work (meaning that they had to use separate equipment.)

In December, the National Institutes of Health announced that it had OK'd 13 new human embryonic stem cell lines for use in federally funded research, with many more lines under consideration. It was the first major step since the presidential action.

[Read Bernadine Healy's take on President Obama's executive order, What Stem Cells Can Do—and Can't, and 10 diseases embryonic stem cells may—or may not—cure.]

"Swine flu" pandem(onium)ic. Just months after a novel influenza strain emerged and virtually shut down Mexico, infecting and killing its citizens at what seemed to be an unsettling clip, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, bumped up the "swine flu" alert to its most extreme degree (after noting its easy spread from person to person and its appearance in 74 countries) and declared that "the world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic," the first in 40 years. Parallels were drawn between this strain, never before seen in humans, and the strain responsible for the deadly 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic; both seemed to favor infecting young adults (though the current outbreak hasn't proven to be anywhere near as severe).