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2012, the year that was: Health + Medicine

Obesity, over-diagnosis, the NDIS, vaccinations and open access for genetic information were just some of the issues covered in 2012. Kylie May;; Morberg; Pranjal Mahn

It promised to be a full year of reforms: pokies legislation, front-of-pack food labels and a dental system that doesn’t cost those in need an arm and a leg. But while we did see cigarette companies forced to swap their bright embossed logos for matt, olive green packs, the results were mixed for health legislation and reform.

The exception was the bipartisan support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). As Deakin health economist Elizabeth Manning wrote back in May, the NDIS won’t be cheap but will certainly be worth the investment for the 400,000 Australians living with disability who struggle to get the support they need from our fragmented and under-funded system.

While climate change may have dominated the energy and environment page of The Conversation, we saw a similar debates on the health page on the health impacts of wind turbines and the safety of childhood vaccination, with evidence on one side and scaremongering on the other.

Wind turbine syndrome is a ‘commincated’ disease. AAP

As Simon Chapman wrote in July, “wind turbine syndrome” is a classic communicated disease – it spreads through talking and instilling fear in others. Chapman has been keeping a tally of the health problems opponents of wind turbines attribute to the energy alternative and by November he’d listed 198 ailments, including cancer, hemorrhoids, weight loss, weight gain and even death.

American political satirist Stephen Colbert wasn’t convinced either, picking up Chapman’s article for a segment on The Colbert Report about the claims of anti-wind farm campaigners.

Meanwhile, in the vaccination debate – if you can call it that – Fiona Stanley pointed out that it’s easy for vaccine deniers to turn their backs on immunisation when they don’t see the devastating effects of infectious diseases. Back in 1956, 100% of Western Australian parents vaccinated their children to protect them from disease horrible diseases such as polio, which they saw paralysing other children.

Apples contain more formaldehyde than vaccines.

The Conversation columnist and toxicology expert Ian Musgrave took a closer look at some of the claims made by anti-vaxxers. His conclusion? The mercury from tinned tuna takes longer to expel from your body than any mercury in vaccines. And there’s at least ten times more formaldehyde in apples than there is in any vaccine.

So what were some of the other most-read pieces of the year?

Our top-rating story for the year was by Timothy Smith from the Florey Neurosciences Institute who explained why we need open access to genetic information. He argued that technical, financial and legal barriers stop the sharing of vital information in medical research. Clocking up almost 40,000 views, the article went viral after it was posted on Reddit.

Into its second year, our medical myths series kept injecting some evidence into our Mondays – and showed us again and again that our parents weren’t always right. Can’t mix antibiotics with alcohol? Oh yes you can. Need eight hours of continuous sleep a night? Not even close. Shaved hair grows back thicker and faster? Nope. Cutting carbs is the best way to lose weight? Thankfully, another myth.

Waking up in the night is perfectly healthy.

Some other off-pace pieces popped up in our most-read list. In August, Spring Chenoa Cooper Robins and Anthony Santella explored the public health implications of removing pubic hair. What’s “normal” in the pubic hair landscape has changed considerably over the past 20 years, they said, with half of female undergraduates removing most or all their hair. The authors helpfully list five things everyone should know about pubic hair removal.

On a more serious note, we took an in-depth look at some of the key issues in health and medicine – on the top of our list was obesity. We kicked off our a 16-part series an infographic showing just how much weight we gained over the past 30 years and what will happen if we change our ways. If we all drank one less glass of wine or soft drink each day and went for a 30 minute walk, we could significantly reverse the trend.

Click here to open in new window or republish.

Throughout the rest of the series, Australia’s top obesity experts explained what we need to do to stop the epidemic.

We also brought you extensive coverage on the issue of over-diagnosis in medicine. As Ray Moynihan explained in the first article of the series, over-diagnosis happens when people are diagnosed with diseases that won’t actually harm them. Prostate cancer testing and breast cancer screening are perhaps two of the most talked-about areas of over-diagnosis, with evidence that some surgeries to remove cancers are unnecessary.

Other in-depth series looked at: Superbugs vs Antibiotics (December), Medical Histories (November), the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (October), Motherhood (October) and Transparency and Medicine (April). We also wrapped up Panacea or Placebo – our series on the history and evidence base of ten complementary therapies – last month.

Columnist Alessandro Demaio writes about global health.

Finally, we welcomed two new columnists to the health and medicine page: Alessandro Demaio’s column Health beyond the horizon gives a snapshot of pressing issues in global health; Andrew Whitehouse’s From placenta to play centre examines the science behind child development, from pre-conception to school. Alessandro and Andrew joined columnists Michael Vagg and Ian Musgrave.

Stay tuned in 2013 for our expert analysis of the federal election. We’ll also look under the covers with a series on sexual health; and examine the health and social effects of Australia’s booze culture. Have a happy and healthy new year.

Health and medicine’s most popular stories for 2012:

1. Sharing is caring: we need open access to genetic information

2. Monday’s medical myth: you can’t mix antibiotics with alcohol

3. Wind turbine syndrome: a classic ‘communicated’ disease

4. The perils of announcing a pregnancy in public

5. Monday’s medical myth: you need eight hours of continuous sleep each night

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