When you scan the health pages of almost any major news media, it can be difficult to find a whole lot that is not related to COVID-19.
For almost two years, the coronavirus pandemic has dominated news headlines, and the emergence of the new Omicron variant has heralded a fresh wave of stories and concerns.
While the pandemic requires obvious and necessary attention – it has caused the deaths of more than 5 million people and brought many of our lives to an end – 2021 has also seen the development of several major health breakthroughs.
Here are five of the biggest health stories you may have missed this year.
WHO approves first malaria vaccine
In a moment that the World Health Organization’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described as “historic”, the WHO recommended widespread use of the world’s first malaria vaccine among children in Africa.
The RTS, S – or Mosquirix vaccine has been under development for more than three decades and was proven effective six years ago.
In October, following the success of a large-scale pilot program in three African countries, the WHO announced that the vaccine would be rolled out in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission.
Malaria kills about half a million people each year, with children under the age of five accounting for the majority of deaths. The greatest burden of the disease is felt in Africa.
“Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria can save tens of thousands of young lives every year.”
The vaccine has been shown to prevent three out of 10 cases of severe malaria. It will be used in conjunction with other infection control measures such as insecticide-treated bed nets.
“This is a big step forward,” said Julian Rayner, director of the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research.
“It’s an imperfect vaccine, but it will stop hundreds of thousands of children from dying.”
New Alzheimer’s drug approved – and bound in controversy
In June, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first new Alzheimer’s drug in nearly 20 years, despite warnings from independent advisers that it had not been shown to slow down the brain-destroying disease.
Aducanumab – marketed as Aduhelm – is the first approved Alzheimer’s therapy to attack the underlying disease process instead of simply relieving the symptoms.
The drug helps remove a protein called beta-amyloid from the brain. Amyloid plaques have become one of the defining features of Alzheimer’s disease, and it is widely believed to play a role in causing (and potentially treating) it.
The FDA said it approved the drug, manufactured by the American biotech company Biogen, based on results that seemed “reasonably likely” to benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease.
But a few months before its approval, an independent panel of neurological experts found that there was not enough evidence to show that the drug was effective and that it posed serious risks of harm.
Before Biogen applied to the FDA, Biogen conducted two large phase 3 clinical trials with aducanumab, both of which were closed because the drug did not appear to help humans.
The drug was later resurfaced after Biogen re-analyzed the data and found that participants who received the highest dose of the drug in a trial experienced a very small slowdown in cognitive decline.
The FDA’s chief drug regulator recognized that “residual uncertainties” surround the drug, and under the terms of its accelerated approval, Biogen is required to conduct a follow-up study to confirm the benefits to patients.
But the decision has sparked much controversy, leading to the resignation of three FDA advisers, one who described the approval as “probably the worst decision to approve drugs in recent U.S. history.”
Since the drug went green, concerns about its safety have intensified, and data from clinical trials show that 41 percent of participants who received a high dose experienced cerebral hemorrhage or swelling.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration is currently evaluating aducanumab for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in Australia and is expected to make a decision in 2022.
New Zealand bans smoking for next generation
Earlier this month, New Zealand announced that it would ban smoking for anyone born after 2010 as part of their ambitious Smokefree 2025 plan.
It will be an offense to sell or supply smoked tobacco products to anyone aged 14 or under when the legislation comes into force and the legal smoking age will increase every year.
The New Zealand government also promised to reduce the number of retailers selling cigarettes and to weaken the amount of nicotine in tobacco products to very low levels.
“Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in New Zealand, causing one in four cancers,” said Health Minister Ayesha Verrall.
In New Zealand, 13 percent of the population smokes, but among Maori New Zealanders, that number jumps to 31 percent.
The country’s Smoke Free 2025 goal is to limit smokers to 5 percent of the total population.
“If nothing changes, it will be decades before Maori smoking rates fall below 5 percent, and this government is not prepared to leave people behind,” said Dr. Verrall.
If the legislation is passed, New Zealand’s tobacco industry will be one of the most restricted in the world, right after Bhutan, where the sale of cigarettes is completely banned.
Climate change threatens Australian health
Since 2015, researchers from around the world have been monitoring how climate change is affecting human health in the annual Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change.
This year’s global outlook? A “red code for a healthy future”, according to climate scientists, who say that people in all regions of the world are increasingly seeing their health affected by a warming planet.
According to the Australian version of the report, our increasing exposure to excess heat is “already limiting our lifestyles”, and extreme weather events – such as floods, droughts and forest fires – result in escalating social, economic and health consequences.
“Within a little over a year, Australia has experienced its worst bushfire fires in my memory, extensive and unprecedented floods in the east and an unprecedented tropical cyclone in the southwestern part of the country,” the authors wrote in October.
“The impact of each of these on physical and mental health has been significant, and the full burden of disease has not yet been revealed.”
The report estimates that there were 2,300 heat-related deaths each year from 2000 to 2019, and it predicts a 36 percent increase in heat wave intensity over the next 20 years.
Despite Australia’s advanced health care system, it warns that the country remains increasingly vulnerable to climate extremism, with climate policies and action that “place [it] on thin ice “.
“The continued absence of a national health and climate adaptation plan is a striking gap in Australia’s preparedness and continues to endanger the health and lives of Australians,” the authors wrote.
Great review of cosmetic surgery industry announced
In November, Australia’s medical regulator announced a major review of patient safety in the cosmetic surgery sector in the wake of a joint study by ABC and Nine newspapers.
The review, which is due to begin in early 2022, will be conducted by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), looking at how to strengthen the rules in the cosmetic surgery industry to better protect patients.
The study revealed a number of disturbing practices at a network of clinics run by renowned cosmetic surgeon Daniel Lanzer.
It revealed serious hygiene and safety breaches and procedures that left patients in extreme pain, requiring additional medical treatment.
The review will examine the announcement of cosmetic surgery, the current codes of conduct and protocols around how complaints are handled.
Since it was announced, state and federal governments have also launched a landmark review aimed at revising the laws around who can call themselves a cosmetic surgeon.
“The serious damage that has recently been revealed in the cosmetic surgery industry is unacceptable and we want to work with other jurisdictions to ensure that this can not continue to happen,” said Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley.