Health Care Reform, Swine Flu Top Health News for 2009

Furor over cancer screening changes and lifting of embryonic stem cell ban also grabbed headlines

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By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Potentially historic moves toward health care reform, the emergence of the pandemic H1N1 flu and controversial changes to cancer screening all made 2009 a very busy year for health news.

Here are the top 10 health news stories from this past year, as selected by editors at HealthDay:

1. Major Health Care Reform Draws Near. After a summer punctuated by raucous "town hall meetings" and battling proposals from both sides of the aisle, House and Senate bills on health care reform were each passed in time for Christmas. The Senate version costs $871 billion but would expand coverage to more than 94 percent of Americans under the age of 65, including 31 million who are currently uninsured.

Voting on the bills was split along party lines, however, and more work needs to be done to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions before President Barack Obama could sign any bill into law. If a final bill does go into effect, experts agree it would mark the most sweeping change to U.S. health care since the introduction of Medicare in the 1960s.

2. Emergence of Pandemic Swine Flu. Cases of a new, sometimes deadly strain of H1N1 influenza that seemed to target children and young adults first emerged in Mexico in March, and quickly spread to the United States and beyond. The World Health Organization's Director-General, Margaret Chan, warned that "all of humanity" was under threat, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued nearly daily press advisories as the number of ill mounted. Vaccines were rushed into production, and as infections peaked in October public demand for the shot had outstripped supply.

By November, however, the autumn wave of H1N1 began to subside and vaccine supplies were plentiful. As of Dec. 19, the CDC has confirmed 36,163 hospitalizations and 1,630 deaths linked to influenza since the end of August -- a number that is well within rates for prior flu seasons. Experts now worry that a second, winter wave of H1N1 flu is yet to come, although the virus remains tough to predict.

3. Changes in Cancer Screening Guidelines Spark Controversy. It used to be so simple: at a certain age and risk profile, Americans were advised to get various cancer screens at predictable intervals. That all changed in 2009. Early in the year, a long-simmering debate over the effectiveness of the PSA blood test for prostate cancer boiled over, with two major studies offering up arguments both pro and con for the test.

And in the fall, experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advised women to wait until age 21 to get their first Pap smear, and reduce frequency of testing to once every two years.

But the biggest firestorm centered on the mammogram, after a federal panel of experts in November advised that women in their 40s no longer needed the annual breast cancer screen. Breast cancer survivors, celebrities and groups as prestigious as the American Cancer Society all opposed the new recommendations, urging that decisions on mammography remain between a woman and her physician.

4. Obama Lifts Ban on Stem Cell Research. Early in March, President Obama signed a measure lifting an eight-year ban on federally funded research using embryonic stem cells sourced from all but 21 pre-existing lines. The ban, implemented early in President George W. Bush's first term, drew fierce criticism from scientists who said it stymied potentially lifesaving research, but it was supported by those who believe that tampering with embryos involves the taking of human life. Earlier this month, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced the release of 13 new embryonic stem cell lines for use in taxpayer-funded research, with more to come.

5. Fears Over Radiation Risk from CT Scans. American medicine's decades-long love affair with the CT scan may be waning, with numerous new studies suggesting that as CT use has exploded, cancer risks linked to radiation from the scans have likewise surged. In fact, one study published in December in the Archives of Internal Medicine estimated that 29,000 future cancer cases could be linked to CT scans performed in 2007 alone.