Feature Archive

Top 10 Health Stories of 2005

WebMD editors pick the year's major health news stories.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Bird flu tops WebMD's list of the top health news stories of 2005, but a pyramid, natural disasters, and a movie star left their mark in a big way, too.

It's been a busy year for the WebMD newsroom. Here's our editors' pick of the top 10 stories.

1. Bird Flu Takes Wing

It's the biggest health story of the year -- and it hasn't happened yet.

Unlike human flu bugs, the H5N1 bird flu sweeping Asia H5N1 bird flu sweeping Asia hasn't yet learned to spread from person to person.

If it does, it could be worse than the infamous 1918 Spanish flu - a bird flu that killed tens of millions of people worldwide. It could also be an economic disaster-- yet state officials say they can't afford to prepare.

What do you need to know? WebMD puts bird flu into historical perspective, and answers the questions -- including whether media hype is inflating bird flu fears.

What will we see in the coming year? Bird flu already is popping up in Europe. As wild birds carry the bird flu virus around the world, it may only be a matter of time before the bug hits birds in Africa and America. Scientists are racing to test a new bird flu vaccinenew bird flu vaccine for humans and to develop faster, better flu vaccines.

2. The Terri Schiavo Saga -- End of Life and Living Wills

After having her feeding tube removed, Terri Schiavo died. Whether the brain-damaged Florida woman would have wanted it this way -- or whether she would have preferred to be kept alive at all costs -- remains a matter of dispute.

That dispute -- between family members -- played out in the most public of ways as the U.S. Congress and Florida Governor Jeb Bush sought to intervene. No matter how we felt about the dispute, Schiavo's sad story made all of us think about our own end-of-life decisions-- and about seeing to our own living wills.

As intimate details of Schiavo's life and death became public, there was some evidence that her collapse may have been due to an eating disorder. Whether this was the case or not, the story again served to focus our attention on an underappreciated health issue.

Schiavo's great legacy may be that she's made us all think about our own deaths, and about how we want our families to deal with them.

Painkillers in the News

3. Black Boxes and Pain Drugs

Remember when you used to pop an over-the-counter pain pill without a second thought? Those days ended this year.

Previously underappreciated heart risks forced Vioxx, and then Bextra, off the market. That leaves only Celebrex to represent the new class of pain pills once billed as "super aspirin."

These drugs, known as Cox-2 inhibitors or coxibs, aren't more powerful than older anti-inflammatory pain drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen. They are designed to be easier on the stomach than ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin. But a recent study questioned even this benefit.

The concerns about the Cox-2 drugs extend to all prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, which are commonly used to treat arthritis and other painful conditions. The FDA recently asked the makers of these drugs to add to their labels new warnings about heart, stroke, and ulcer risks.

Short-term, low-dose use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, do not appear to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But patients should check with their doctors before taking these drugs for more than 10 days.

Pain drugs aren't the only drugs getting new warning labels. Responding to public outcry, the FDA last year asked more and more drug makers to put new warnings on their products.

The FDA's highest safety warning for approved drugs, a "black box" warning, was added to the following:

The FDA has also asked the independent Institute of Medicine for recommendations on how it might improve drug safety. An IOM panel of experts began holding hearings in 2005.

4. Contraceptives Questioned

Fewer women use birth control today than they did in 1995 -- even though they are sexually active and do not want to get pregnant. At the same time, more women are seeking family planning advice from a doctor or nurse.