It was difficult to separate politics from many of the top health stories of 2017.
The most obvious might be the various attempts by Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
However, politics was also deeply engrained in the battle over rising prescription drug prices.
In addition, there were the actions taken by the Trump administration to cut teen pregnancy prevention programs, as well as restrict access to abortion services.
Many of these decisions had a bigger impact on the health of people in rural regions than they did on residents in urban areas.
Medical marijuana continued to make news as did antibiotic resistance.
The entertainment industry also produced its share of health controversies.
The Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” sparked debate over the depiction of teen suicide.
Another Netflix show, “To the Bone,” brought on commentary about anorexia.
The movie “The Big Sick,” introduced many film-goers to a condition known as adult-onset Still’s disease.
However, the health issue that perhaps garnered the most attention and had the biggest impact was the United States’ hardcore addiction to prescription opioids.
The epidemic deepens
We entered the year knowing had died from opioid overdoses in 2015.
Predictions are that the toll was even higher in 2016.
Half of these deaths were from prescription opioids.
As 2017 moved along, we learned that the epidemic wasn’t confined to adults.
In an August report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that although drug use among older teens had decreased, the number of drug overdose deaths in this age group had increased.
And the bulk of those deaths were from opioids.
About the same time, we learned the number of people under the age of 21 who are diagnosed with an opioid addiction in emergency rooms is on the rise.
During the summer, it was also reported that the number of babies born with opioid-related conditions has gone up dramatically.
In fact, the problem has become so serious that some hospitals are bringing in volunteers to hug these infants to help wean them from their drug dependency.
The crisis is even hitting dogs.
Veterinarians reported that pets and police animals are being exposed to opioids.
There were other signs the epidemic is worsening, too.
Health officials said discarded syringes used to inject opioids were littering streets, parks, and beaches.
A secondary industry has even started to boom amid the crisis.
Companies have sprung up to supply medical professionals with medications to ease the symptoms of drug addiction or even to reverse opioid overdoses.
The various reasons for the rising epidemic also made news in 2017.
Among them was a report that prescription pain killers given to patients after major and even minor surgery was helping drive opioid use.
Another report released this summer concluded that people with depression and mood disorders accounted for half of all opioid prescriptions in the country.
Solutions to the epidemic were batted about all through 2017.
One was limiting opioid prescriptions to seven days.
Another was a monthly shot to help people through withdrawal from their addiction.
There were even suggestions of using the herbal drug kratom to help with opioid withdrawal.
Pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens even started stocking Narcan, a nasal spray used to reverse opioid overdoses.
The increased use of Narcan also triggered a debate in some communities about whether medical professionals and law enforcement officers should try to save people who are overdosing.
State and federal lawmakers also got into the act.
They proposed everything from limiting opioid prescriptions to getting more people into counseling to investigating the pharmaceutical industry.
During the summer, federal authorities announced a crackdown on doctors illegally prescribing opioids. In addition, the popular painkiller Opana ER was recalled at the request of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In October, President Donald Trump announced a “public health emergency” to deal with the opioid crisis.
However, the declaration fell short of the “national emergency” that some drug abuse groups felt he should have declared.
Finally, in late November, the White House stated that presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway would coordinate the administration’s efforts to lessen the opioid epidemic.
It was a move met by some praise from experts and some harsh criticism from opponents.
As busy as lawmakers were with the opioid crisis, a lot of political capital and energy was also spent on the nation’s healthcare system.
The attempts by Republican leaders to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) lasted throughout 2017.
It began in January with President Trump, even before his inauguration, urging Congress to repeal Obamacare “quickly.”
As the year neared an end, enrollees scrambled to sign up for ACA plans before the shortened December 15 deadline.
The following week, Congress approved a tax cut bill that included a repeal of the crucial ACA individual mandate requirement.
In between, there was plenty of action.
In late January, the Trump administration pulled all advertising and outreach during the final week of enrollment for ACA plans.
That was only one of a number of ways critics said the White House was trying to sabotage the ACA system.
Other measures included the individual mandate repeal and the shorter enrollment period, as well as Trump threatening to end federal insurance subsidies for low-income households and ignoring some of the provisions in ACA law.
In the spring, the House of Representatives pulled back a bill that would have repealed most of Obamacare’s provisions. That measure had been met with harsh criticism from most health organizations.
In May, the House did finally approve a plan to repeal Obamacare.
However, several plans by the Senate to push forward their version failed.
A final version, the Cassidy-Graham bill, wasn’t voted on before a September 30 deadline.
The fiery debate over Obamacare also brought out proposals from Democrats on how to modify the nation’s healthcare system.
One of them was universal health coverage, an idea supported by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, among others.
A similar “Medicaid for All” proposal was also touted by some Democratic leaders.
Other White House actions
Obamacare wasn’t the only program supported by Democrats that was targeted by the Trump administration and other Republican leaders.
In late January, two female Republican legislators introduced a bill to take away the $500 million a year the federal government provides to Planned Parenthood.
The funding represents about 40 percent of the organization’s annual operating budget.
The defunding measure was part of several healthcare bills in the House and Senate, but those bills never made it out of Congress.
However, Congress did vote in late March to allow states to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood chapters.
The debate prompted Healthline to publish a story on what would happen if the 650 Planned Parenthood health centers across the country were to suddenly close.
The White House didn’t stop there.
In July, it was reported that the Trump administration had quietly cut $213 million from teen pregnancy prevention programs. The reductions in grant money affected more than 80 institutions across the nation.
Abortion opponents took similar action at the state level.
Unable to outlaw abortion, they pushed for state laws that make the medical procedure more difficult to obtain.
Among the laws were ones passed by several states that require a “waiting period” for women seeking an abortion.
The Trump administration’s policies to restrict immigration were also criticized by health professionals.
Among other things, they said undocumented immigrants might decide not to seek medical services because of the fear of being arrested.
They had similar concerns about the attempts to repeal or restrict the so-called Dream Act that protects the children of illegal immigrants from deportation.
The decisions involving healthcare also took a toll in rural areas.
Early in the year, CDC officials released a study that concluded people living in rural areas face a higher risk of dying from the five leading causes of death in the United States.
Other researchers noted that obesity, smoking, and alcohol use were all bigger problems in rural areas than in urban regions.
These health problems, experts said, were exacerbated by a lack of access to medical services in rural towns.
Among the issues was the fact that rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate.
All these health issues facing the country — and the debate surrounding them — prompted Harvard University to publish an article in June on how the country’s stress and anxiety could lead to deep and long-lasting health problems.
The editor of Vanity Fair magazine went as far as to give the acronym PTSD new meaning. He labeled it as President Trump Stress Disorder.
As the year wound down, members of psychology-related organizations began to debate whether the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency should lead to policy changes in their profession.
In particular, they wondered if their long-standing ban on publicly discussing a well-known person’s mental state without a personal examination should be lifted so President Trump’s mental health could be evaluated.
Prescription drug prices
Prescription drug prices were an issue of concern for the White House, as well as a number of state leaders.
The year began with Trump railing against pharmaceutical companies, saying they were “getting away with murder.”
In his first weeks in office, the president met with industry executives and outlined a plan to reduce drug prices.
The initiatives included negotiating Medicare drug costs, allowing more medications to be imported from other countries, and speeding up the drug approval process.
None of those measures have come to fruition yet and the debate over pharmaceuticals raged on during 2017.
During the summer, consumer advocates bemoaned the fact that prescription drug prices continued to rise despite all the bad publicity for pharmaceutical companies.
It was also revealed that pharmacies might be charging customers more for prescription drugs if they used their health insurance.
Lawsuits against CVS and Walgreens were filed, accusing the companies for so-called “clawbacks” that raised prices for consumers using insurance.
The revelations spurred Sen. Sanders to push two proposals to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
One would put price controls on drugs where taxpayer money was used to help fund research and development.
The second would make it easier to import medications from other countries, including Canada.
Amid all of these, global health officials announced there aren’t enough new antibiotics in the research pipeline.
They said the new drugs were needed to tackle antibiotic-resistant microbes… another issue that dominated health news in 2017.
The concern over bacteria and other microorganisms becoming more resistant to antibiotics has been rising for years.
2017 was no different.
In January, researchers from three institutions published a study stating that bacteria known as CREs were spreading more rapidly than previously thought.
That revelation led some health experts to speculate what our world would be like if we didn’t have any effective antibiotics.
In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) put out an urgent notice, listing 12 “priority pathogens” they said had become drug resistant and were threatening human health across the globe.
WHO officials urged pharmaceutical companies to put new drugs on a fast track to battle these deadly bacteria.
During the summer, WHO officials released another report, stating that cases of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea were on the rise worldwide.
The increase in drug-resistant microbes led several institutions to offer up potential solutions.
A research team in London announced it was possible to use “brute force” to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The researchers said they had uncovered a way for antibiotics to “force open” the lock that resistant microbes form to keep drugs from destroying them.
In June, scientists announced they had given a boost to vancomycin.
That’s an antibiotic that’s been around since the late 1950s — to which microorganisms keep becoming resistant.
Researchers said this new version of vancomycin could prove to more successful than previous versions.
Other researchers were trying a different tact to beat back drug resistance.
Scientists published a report in the BMJ in which they said patients shouldn’t take their “full course” of antibiotics if it wasn’t necessary.
They said the notion that patients finish all their antibiotics was helping fuel the rise in drug-resistant bacteria.
Other health experts were urging people to treat certain ailments, especially those involving pain, with substances other than antibiotics.
Those included drugs that in the recent past were illegal.
Marijuana on the move
As 2017 unfolded, more than half of U.S. states had approved legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
Another eight and the District of Columbia had approved cannabis for recreational use.
This, despite the fact that the drug is still illegal under federal law.
Throughout the year, the debate continued over how beneficial and safe marijuana really is.
The discussion was kicked off in January when the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report with 100 conclusions about marijuana use.
The findings ranged from the health benefits of cannabis in treating pain and illnesses, to the risks of diseases and mental disorders.
The following month, the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in.
The organization issued a report that warned that marijuana use can be harmful to children and young adults because their brains are still developing.
A few months later, another report was released, this one stating that children exposed to marijuana in the womb can experience vision problems.
Warnings were issued for adults, too.
In one study, researchers said that heating up marijuana concentrates could produce cancer-causing chemicals.
Another study suggested that medical marijuana laws were encouraging the misuse of the drug among adults.
A New Jersey couple went as far as to say that marijuana use had caused the death of their 22-year-old son. However, most experts said cannabis use alone can’t kill you.
On the other side of the debate, there was no shortage of studies touting the benefits of cannabis.
One report concluded that marijuana can help children with seizures, as well as cancer nausea.
Another stated that marijuana-based medicine can reduce epilepsy symptoms.
Other experts said marijuana can be used to treat chronic pain and help ease the opioid epidemic.
Whatever the research, there were plenty of people who believed that marijuana had far more advantages than disadvantages.
In October, Healthline took a look at why so many cancer patients are now using marijuana.
We also revealed why so many senior citizens are using marijuana for pain and other age-related ailments.
And in December, the WHO issued a report where they stated that medical marijuana’s main ingredient isn’t addictive or dangerous.
As much in the spotlight as marijuana was, it wasn’t the only thing that was lighting up the health world.
Smoking vs. vaping
Smoking rates have been declining for years in the United States.
However, that didn’t prevent cigarettes from being a major topic, especially with the rise of vaping and e-cigarettes.
The year began with the annual report on the State of Tobacco Control from the American Lung Association.
The report highlighted anti-smoking laws, including states that have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21.
Taxes on cigarettes were also mentioned.
On April 1, California’s cigarette tax increased significantly. Experts told Healthline then that higher taxes on tobacco products do indeed reduce smoking.
The following month, a study was released that concluded “social smokers” have the same cardiovascular health risks as regular smokers.
A few months after that, the FDA announced it was looking into the possibility that lowering nicotine in cigarettes could help people quit smoking.
Big Tobacco even seemed to be getting into the anti-smoking act.
In September, Phillip Morris International announced it was pledging $80 million a year over the next 12 years to set up a foundation to help reduce smoking rates.
But there was method to what may seem like madness here.
Healthline reported that tobacco companies, including RJ Reynolds, have seen the handwriting on the wall for traditional cigarettes.
So, they’re investing heavily in alternative smoking products, including “heat-not-burn” tobacco and, of course, e-cigarettes.
During 2017, the debate continued over the safety of the new vaping products.
One study in September concluded it’s easier for smokers to quit if they switch to e-cigarettes before giving up their habit.
At the same time, the American Lung Association said it was concerned e-cigarettes could become a “gateway” to smoking regular cigarettes, especially for teens and young adults.
In addition, researchers in Europe released several studies which they said showed that vaping e-cigarettes wasn’t healthy.
One study concluded that e-cigarettes with nicotine can cause stiffening in the arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular health problems.
Whatever the science, traditional ways of smoking seem to be losing favor with younger folks.
In December, a national study revealed that vaping and marijuana use were more common among U.S. teens than cigarette smoking.
The cloud that seemed to hang over all the debate over smoking and vaping was whether these habits can increase a person’s risk of cancer.
Cancer treatments advance
It was a busy year for emerging cancer treatments.
One of the most talked about was the cellular immunotherapy known as CAR-T.
The treatment is a one-time infusion utilizing a patient’s own engineered T cells.
It has shown great promise in late-stage clinical trials.
So much so that Gilead Sciences purchased Kite Pharma, a small biotech firm specializing in CAR-T, for $12 billion during the summer.
Cancer treatment has advanced so much in the past few years that there’s been talk of a universal vaccine.
However, a study published in March concluded it’s unlikely a one-size-fits-all vaccine for cancer will be developed.
There’s a simple overriding reason. There are too many different kinds of cancer.
Nonetheless, there could be vaccines for particular types of cancer.
There already is one for the human papillomavirus (HPV).
And, in October, researchers announced a clinical trial for a vaccine for women who have already undergone treatment for nonmetastatic breast cancer and are in remission.
The new drug Keytruda was also in the news.
It’s one of a new series of medications that target cancer biomarkers so they can zero in on dangerous tumors.
Advances were also made in cancer diagnoses.
In February, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) said they were testing a new high-tech blood test.
The test involves a small device that uses nanowires to detect circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream.
About the same time, researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) unveiled another new blood test.
This test works by identifying DNA traces of cancer cells that have broken away from tumors.
All these new advancements do come at a cost and the price tag for cancer detection and treatment was also a big story in 2017.
A study published in September estimated that it costs pharmaceutical companies nearly $650 million to develop a new cancer drug.
Those new drugs, the researchers said, do bring in a median of $1.6 billion in revenue.
Those numbers were hotly contested by the pharmaceutical industry though.
But that didn’t temper some of the discussion of the cost of cancer care.
Concerns were raised in the fall over the $475,000 price tag attached to Novartis’ new cancer-fighting drug Kymriah.
Critics noted that taxpayer money had been used to help fund research for the drug.
Company officials, however, said that Novartis had spent $1 billion to bring the drug to market.
Other preventive trends also emerged in 2017.
One was that more women diagnosed with breast cancer are choosing to have double mastectomies even if their cancer has only shown up in one breast.
Despite all the news on treatment and prevention, cancer still proved to be a formidable foe.
A report in June noted that despite the overall decrease in cancer rates, the incidence of rare cancers may be on the rise.
The following month, a report by the CDC stated that although there are fewer cancer cases in rural America now, the death rate from cancer in those regions is increasing.
And in October, researchers released a study in which they said there’s no clear evidence that most new cancer drugs extend or improve lives.
Finally, the case of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) returned to the news.
In July, Healthline reported that the former presidential candidate may have contracted his brain cancer from Agent Orange while serving in the Vietnam War 50 years ago.
The high-profile case helped highlight this type of cancer as well as the Veterans Administration’s failure in the past to deal with the connection between Agent Orange and veterans’ illnesses.
During 2017, the entertainment industry also used its extensive platform to shine a spotlight on a variety of health-related issues.
Entertainment takes on serious issues
Movies and online shows did their part to make news in the health world in 2017.
The most talked about program was probably “13 Reasons Why.”
The 13-episode drama on Netflix centered on a high school girl who had taken her own life and then left behind a series of audio tapes in which she told others at the school how they had helped drive her to suicide.
Supporters of the show said it sparked discussion about issues such as bullying and social media shaming.
Critics, including some suicide prevention groups, said the drama glamorized teen suicide.
Another Netflix show drew similar reactions involving eating disorders.
“To the Bone” portrayed a young woman living with anorexia.
Some experts praised the show for bringing issues surrounding eating disorders to the forefront.
Others, however, raised concerns about the film’s graphic depictions of emaciated bodies and eating disordered behavior.
Earlier in the year, a movie that hit the silver screen evoked criticism from the mental health community.
“Split” focused on a man with dissociative identity disorder who kidnaps three girls and then terrorizes and harms them.
Critics said the film wasn’t an accurate portrayal of people with the disorder and could stigmatize people with this illness.
Another major film drew general praise for its handling of a disease not well known by the public.
“The Big Sick” told the story of a comedian whose fiancée is put into a medically-induced coma after coming down with adult-onset Still’s disease.
The movie stars Kumail Nanjiani and is based on the real-life story of the comedian and his wife, Emily V. Gordon.
The romantic comedy brought a smile to audience’s faces but also educated them about this rare form of arthritis.
One of the year’s biggest blockbusters also garnered some praise.
“Wonder Woman” starring Gal Gadot was lauded for portraying a superheroine as strong, smart, and caring.
Gadot was also hailed as a positive role model for young women.
The actress and former combat trainer in the Israel Defense Forces was five months pregnant when she filmed some of the movie.
Yet, she still powered through the filming and even performed some of her own stunts.
Experts said Gadot serves as an inspiration for girls and young women.
And well-known celebrities weren’t just inspiring the public for roles they were playing.
Some also had real-life stories to tell.
Celebrities step in
Sometimes truth is more powerful than fiction.
That was the case with a number of celebrities who stepped forward this year to tell their health-related stories.
One was country singer Randy Travis.
In February, Healthline published the story of his long road back from a debilitating stroke.
Travis nearly died from that stroke four years ago.
But since then, the eight-time Grammy winner has relearned how to walk and has partially regained use of the right side of his body.
Pop singer Janet Jackson sparked discussion of late motherhood when she gave birth to her first child at the age of 50.
Hoda Kotb of the “Today Show” encouraged discussion of a similar topic when she adopted a child at the age of 52.
Pete Davidson, a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” brought the issue of mental health to the comedy stage.
The young comedian discussed his diagnosis of borderline personality disorder on a podcast.
He then joked about it during the newscast segment of a “Saturday Night Live” show.
Sports figures also stepped forward.
In May, Healthline told the story of Charlie Kimball, the first race car driver with diabetes to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
This year was the seventh time Kimball participated in the nation’s most famous auto race.
Kimball told Healthline about the conditioning he does to prepare for these long races, as well as the equipment he has on board his race car to monitor his vital signs.
A father-son team from the baseball world got the message out this summer about prostate cancer.
Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. talked to Healthline in July about the older Griffey’s cancer diagnosis 12 years ago, his treatment, and the preventive measures he and his son both take now.
The retired baseball stars urged men to get regular checkups for prostate cancer.
A former basketball star jumped into the debate about the opioid epidemic.
Grant Hill spoke to Healthline in September about the campaign he’s part of to convince people to consider alternatives to prescription pain killers after surgery.
Hill had 11 surgeries during his 19-year career.
He said the pain medication he initially took was an unpleasant experience and led him to try other methods.
Not all the advice given by celebrities involved serious health issues though.
A number of stars offered their perspectives on diets, exercise, and other topics.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow made her annual foray into this field.
This year, Paltrow was one of the folks touting the benefits of “clean sleeping” in her latest book.
Among the technique’s strategies is to get at least nine hours of sleep a night.
Not every expert was convinced.
Paltrow’s advice this year was less controversial than some remedies she has rallied behind in the past.
However, Paltrow and her clean sleeping cohorts were nowhere near the most unusual health story this past year.
The odd and the unusual
From fish and Komodo dragons to squid ink, there were plenty of borderline bizarre health stories in 2017.
We start with skin creams made with… snail slime.
The cosmetics have been popular in Asia for years, but we reported this summer how the creams were gaining traction, and sales, in the United States.
There was also the emerging trend of lab-grown meat.
Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been shipping their plant-based products to restaurants and stores.
In March, Memphis Meats announced they had produced the country’s first lab-grown chicken strips.
We also traveled to the waters off the coast of Australia for the story of venom from the so-called “fanged fish.”
Scientists said the heroin-like venom from the fish could someday be used as a pain medication that’s less addictive than prescription opioids.
A little farther north in the Indonesian islands brought us another story from the unusual.
Scientists in that region said blood from the Komodo dragon could be a new tool in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The researchers have been studying the blood, trying to identify molecules that give the large lizards a strong natural immunity.
Not to be outdone, scientists in the United States are using scorpion venom to help children with brain cancer.
They’ve created a synthetic version of the venom to use as “tumor paint” to make tumors light up and stand out during surgery.
If that doesn’t make you queasy, then perhaps the thought of your dentist using squid ink might.
In September, Healthline published a story about researchers who are using squid ink to search for signs of gum disease.
It might sound unpleasant, but it does eliminate the need for a dentist to shove a metal object in your mouth.
Finally, the technology world brings us our final recap of 2017.
This one might be helpful if you plan on partying on New Year’s Eve.
During a scientific conference in June, researchers unveiled a new app designed to tell people if they’ve had too much to drink.
The app uses the time of day and week, as well as the user’s past behavior and their outgoing calls and text messages, to determine if someone is overdoing it with liquor.
The app then sends the user supportive and advisory messages.
Sort of a high-tech designated driver or AA sponsor.
That wraps it up for 2017.
An interesting year for health-related news.
And 2018 appears ready to pick up where this year leaves off.