From two extra weeks of vacation for Congress to outbreaks of long gone diseases, 2013 bore many health stories that we wish never were. Here are some of them.
1. NFL Players Sustain Life-Long Injuries
The Downside: The National Football League has made billions of dollars out of players who give it their all on the gridiron. But the organization has often downplayed the lasting effects of the concussions and other head injuries that are sustained during play, according to court documents from a player lawsuit. This has left many career players at higher risk of developing depression, dementia, and other behavioral problems.
The Bright Side: A $765 million court settlement will help some 4,500 retired players and their families, paying for players' medical exams, and underwriting research into the long-term risks of repeated concussions.
2. Hospital Worker Infects 46 People with Hepatitis C
The Downside: David Kwiatkowski, 34, worked as a medical technician at hospitals in seven states. While he was working at the Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire in 2011, it emerged that Kwiatkowski—who had recently been diagnosed with hepatitis C—frequently stole syringes of the painkiller fentanyl, injected himself with the medication, and then refilled the needles with saline for later use on patients. In total, Kwiatkowski infected 46 people with hepatitis C and necessitated testing for the disease for more than 12,000 patients.
The Bright Side: In December, Kwiatkowski was sentenced to 39 years in prison. As for those he infected, new hepatitis C drug treatments are being hailed as the first cure for a viral disease.
3. Healthcare.gov's Failure to Launch
The Downside: When open enrollment for the federal government’s healthcare exchanges began on Nov. 1, many of those seeking healthcare were instead greeted with misinformation, error pages, and long waits. And when the front-end problems were seemingly ironed out, back-end problems quickly emerged. As Americans grappled with poor processing of records and confusion over whether or not they were actually covered, a disastrous White House press conference that saw one woman collapse from exhaustion capped a less-than-perfect launch for Obamacare.
The Bright Side: Sooner or later, healthcare coverage will be available to many people who did not have it before.
4. Vast Discrepancies in Hospital Costs Revealed
The Downside: How can it cost $2,500 to treat chest pains in Whitney, Tex., but $81,000 in Bayonne, N.J.? Because that’s what happens when hospitals get free reign on pricing and patients are unable to shop around. In May, the Obama administration released records from more than 3,000 U.S. hospitals, highlighting vast discrepancies in what hospitals across the country charge for the same procedures.
The Bright Side: With the information made public, hospitals are now less likely to be able to hide behind a veil of nontransparent pricing.
5. Anti-Vaccination Movement Puts Many at Risk
The Downside: In 2013, 175 cases of measles were reported in the U.S., three times more than in any other year since the disease was considered 'eliminated' in 2000. Measles, along with other preventable diseases such as whooping cough, are seeing a resurgence across the U.S. as small outbreaks affect people who avoid vaccinations for personal or religious reasons.
Toward the end of the year, a report by Katie Couric on the purported dangers of HPV vaccination drew fire from critics, who argued her reporting was far from balanced or based on fact.
The Bright Side: After these outbreaks, some people have changed their stance and are getting necessary vaccinations.
6. Antibiotic Overuse Fuels Superbugs
The Downside: The discovery of antibiotics has saved millions of lives, but their overuse in livestock and unnecessary prescription for common colds are helping bacteria evolve past the current medications on the market.
“Superbugs,” those whose defenses modern antibiotics can’t break, are showing up more and more often in hospitals across the U.S. Every year, more than two million Americans are infected with some form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resulting in 23,000 deaths annually.
The Bright Side: The CDC and other organizations are pursuing the issue aggressively, educating the public and health officials about when it’s appropriate to use antibiotics.
7. Prescription Painkiller Abuse Brings Heroin into the Mainstream
The Downside: Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die by from overdoses of highly addictive opioid painkillers, such as Oxycodone and Oxycontin. Over the past 11 years, the number of such overdose deaths has increased by a whopping 415 percent, and is four times higher than the number of deaths caused by cocaine and heroin combined.
But even as federal authorities have cracked down on “pill mills”—with physicians banned from selling oxycodone out of their practices and local governments blocking the opening of pain clinics—people are slowly turning to heroin to feed their addiction.
The Bright Side: More states are adopting Good Samaritan laws, which limit legal liability for those who call 911 in the case of an overdose.
8. Johnson & Johnson Part of Largest Ever Healthcare Fraud Case
The Downside: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) charged pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson with fraud for mis-branding the drug Risperdal, which treats schizophrenia. Authorities allege that Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson company, marketed the drug for unintended uses and downplayed its health risks for children and the elderly.
The Bright Side: Janssen must pay $1.72 billion in criminal fines and forfeiture and another $485 million in settlements with the federal government, the largest ever sum for such a case, which should make pharmaceutical companies more wary of how they advertise their wares.
9. Government Shutdown Paralyzes CDC, FDA
The Downside: When Congress failed to reach a budget agreement, the government operated at 73 percent for 15 days, forcing many important agencies to close shop and send their workers home, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration.
With many food safety positions left unstaffed, and the CDC’s ability to track disease outbreaks was hampered. Congress members, however, were still paid their full wages.
The Bright Side: The shutdown is over, and 2014 is an election year for many members of Congress.