Thursday, January 24, 2008

Telesis File : Top health stories of 2007

From contaminated toothpaste and deadly spinach to DNA revelations and vegansexuals, there were surprises from all health fronts in 2007 as new fads emerged as well as new dangers. Here are just some of the most notable stories in medicine, health and wellness from a wild year. China - Getting the lead out: First, dogs and cats started dying - the culprit was melamine that found its way from animal feed in China to pet food in North America. Then, American and Canadian consumers were told to avoid Chinese-made toothpaste after thousands of recalled tubes in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic were found to contain diethylene glycol, an ingredient in anti-freeze. When millions of toys — all made in China — were recalled in the United States over concerns about lead levels, things really got serious. Under political pressure from the United States, China cracked down on product safety, shutting factories and beefing up regulations. Oh, and it also executed - yes, executed the former drug safety chief. With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing approaching, the country not only needs to keep safety problems from reaching North America, but must also contain them at home, because product safety was an issue in China long before it reached us. Local Eating: Sticking close to home ‘Locavore’ was named Oxford’s word of the year, but that doesn’t mean there’s consensus on the definition. Is it eating food grown within 100 miles of your home, as two British Columbians committed to doing? Is it eating within your state or province? Your country? What if it’s local but not organic? And are the environmental benefits over conventional diets really that remarkable? Some people say maybe not, and argue that excluding far-flung foods may hurt struggling farmers in poor countries. Locavores say the environmental results are there, and point out the other benefits of a diet that sticks close to home: local foods support local farmers and artisans, and because they’re fresher, they taste better. Cloned meat - Got clones: The possibility of cloned meat sold on a mass scale has come up before, but in 2007, it started to seem more likely. The FDA debated what the regulations would be around the labelling of meat coming from cloned animals — if there would be any at all. A decision on the sale of cloned foods was expected by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a California bill that would have required labelling for meat from cloned animals. And a Wired magazine investigation pointed out that while governments and regulatory bodies battle it out, consumers might already be eating meat from animals descended from clones. Gene sequencing - Your personal map, for a price: In September, Craig Venter showed the world his genetic sequence, revealing many things about him: he’s pre-disposed to waxy ears; he carries genes for heart disease and Alzheimer’s, but also longevity; he may be more likely than others to be a smoker, thanks to seven genes linked to tobacco addiction. There’s also a lot his genome doesn’t tell us, because we don’t know yet what those genes do and how they do it — and that’s what worries some people about companies like 23andMe (and deCODEme), which will decode your genetic make-up for about $1000. As scientists learn more about how our genes work, these services will give people more information about their health. The concern, then, is how will people react to the information and are they paying for something that ultimately may be meaningless to them. Food scares - Salad with a side of E coli: Most people wouldn’t think twice about eating spinach — organic spinach, no less. They might even go out of their way for it. It’s a vegetable, after all, high in folate and iron. But it also killed three people in the United States in late 2006 and infected nearly 200 others. The culprit was E. coli, a bacteria usually associated with meat that may have found its way into bagged spinach via cow manure through the irrigation system. The contamination and subsequent recall set in motion an examination of safety standards in the produce industry. But if several meat recalls this year didn’t remind people that the food supply might not be safe, a report on the Food and Drug Administration released by an advisory panel containing scientists and industry representatives that pointed to a funding situation that puts American lives ‘at risk’ certainly did. Functional foods - Healthy business: If you think that all foods are functional, you haven’t spent much time in a grocery store’s drinks aisle lately. The options have widened considerably beyond orange juice, apple juice, soda and bottled water. Now, if a beverage doesn’t offer some sort of additional health benefit, it’s passe. Exotic fruits like acai, mangosteen and goji berries are showing up in juice drinks, boasting impressive amounts of antioxidants and vitamins. Glaceau’s vitaminwater earned itself some cache with a purchase by Coca-Cola and celebrity endorsements from Jennifer Aniston and 50 Cent, even if critics charged the health claims weren’t supported. And speaking of Coke, they introduced Enviga, a green tea-spiked beverage the company says helps burn calories. It also set up a facility in China to research traditional medicines, with the hopes of applying that knowledge to future product offerings. Functional foods have really made a splash in the beverages category, but they’re trickling out into other parts of the grocery store as well — witness the sudden ubiquitiousness of probiotics in everything from yogurt to breakfast cereal. Vegansexuality - Meat-eaters need not apply: It was also a year in which our eating habits spilled into other areas of our lives, including our relationships. Enter vegansexuals: vegans who won’t date carnivores. There was some debate about whether the trend was real or mostly existed online and in newspapers. Either way, vegansexuality’s brief time as a hit with bloggers points to how much we’re paying attention not just to what we’re eating — and what everyone else is eating — but also what that says other aspects of our lives. US Health - State of the union: With all this in mind, where are Americans at the end of 2007, health-wise? For one, they’re living longer — three years longer in 2004 than in 1990 for men, and one for women. But during those longer lives, they’re also getting more chronic diseases, meaning more Americans are living with pain and disability. Obesity rates for adults have leveled off, with 33 percent of men and 35 percent of women reported as obese in a 2005/06 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up slightly from 31 and 33 percent respectively in the 2003/04 survey. That change isn’t statistically significant, but it’s still quite a way from the 15 percent rate seen in 1980. Ironically, some studies showed that the millions of Americans in the overweight range — defined as a body mass index between 25 and 29 — actually have a lower death rate than not only the obese, but also those who are underweight and normal weight. Childhood obesity , however, is still increasing, and recent studies have shown that obese children are at risk of future health issues, particularly coronary problems - some experts are predicting that we’ll see a spike in cases in 20 years.