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From ALS to Egg Freezing: Top 10 Health Headlines of 2014

man with ice bucket
Kim Quintano |

In the year just past the world saw tragic epidemics (and we don't just mean Ebola), millions of Americans gaining health insurance, a silly campaign for a serious cause, groundbreaking, and sometimes weird, advances in medicine (poop pills, anyone?), and more. Here's a look back at the top health stories of 2014.  

1. West Africa Experiences Deadliest Ebola Epidemic on Record

A fast-spreading outbreak of Ebola in West Africa dominated health news headlines for much of 2014. As the disease ravaged countries with few health care resources, international aid groups scrambled to provide relief. The year ended with a US military presence based in Liberia, trials on a new vaccine, and over 7,000 deaths. Here’s a look back at major developments.

2. Millions of Americans Get Health Insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Care Exchanges

After the shaky roll-out of the website in the fall of 2013, individual healthcare plans subsidized by the federal government became available in January in all 50 states. About 6.7 million people enrolled through the exchanges in 2014, with the biggest increases over the previous year among young adults, people of color, low-income individuals, and people in rural areas. Twenty-three states opted to expand Medicaid to all individuals below the federal poverty line, with costs covered by the federal government for the first three years.

But the rollout of the law continues to be challenged. In November, House Republicans filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, arguing that the language of the Affordable Care Act only legalizes subsidies for exchanges run by states, not those run by the federal government. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case in the spring.

3. Ice Bucket Challenge Raises over $100 Million for ALS Research

When Peter Frates, a Massachusetts man with the degenerative condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, challenged his friends to dump a bucket of ice-water over their heads or donate $100 to the ALS Association, he set off a viral internet charity campaign. The Ice Bucket Challenge brought about a massive spike in funds and awareness to this “orphan disease.”

4. Rare Enterovirus-68 Sickens Children across the United States

A rare strain of enterovirus—a common type of virus that usually only causes mild respiratory illness—this year caused a spate of hospitalizations and a even a few deaths. 2014 broke the record for enterovirus-68 infections, most of them in children and teenagers, and many with a history of asthma.

5. FDA Recommends Preventative Drug for People at Risk for HIV

For the first time, the FDA recommends those at high risk for contracting HIV take a preventative medication. The antiretroviral Truvada had been used to treat HIV infections for several years and has been shown to be effective at preventing the illness.

6. Brittany Maynard’s Death Reignites Right-to-Die Debate

After diagnosis with terminal brain cancer, twenty-nine year-old Brittany Maynard moved from her home state of California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s law permitting physician-assisted suicide. As planned, she ended her life on November 1. The publicity her story gained reignited the public debate around physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in only three states.

7. Measles Makes a Comeback

2014 saw 594 cases of measles in the United States and 18 outbreaks, the highest number since 2000. Concerned that some families are skipping the vaccine, the American Academy of Pediatrics evenhired a children’s book illustrator to help spread raise awareness of the importance of vaccination. Numbers are also rising in the developing world and in Europe, with a jump from 122,000 measles deaths in 2012 to 145,000 this year, .

8. Silicon Valley Companies Offer Egg-Freezing Benefit to Female Employees

In a time when women have a growing interest in medical solutions to extend their childbearing years, Facebook and Apple announced this October that they would pay for female employees to cryogenically freeze their eggs. The benefit covers $20,000 worth of procedures - typically two rounds of egg retrieval.

9. "Text Neck” Takes a Toll on our Spines

Delivering a wake-up call about how our digital device use is straining our bodies, a study published this year in Surgical Technology International noted that tilting the head forward to peer at a smartphone can exert up to 60 pounds of pressure on the spine, leading to wear and tear and possible injury over time.  

10. We Get Friendlier with our Bacteria

In 2014, scientists made discoveries and medical breakthroughs related to the beneficial bacteria that naturally inhabit our bodies. For example, immunologists at Georgia State University discovered that friendly bacteria may help fight off dangerous viruses. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital ran a successful trial of a frozen poop pill that can cure Clostridium difficile, a debilitating and sometimes fatal illness. And researchers in Ireland found out that regular exercise may increase levels of health-promoting gut bacteria. And you can ease up on the yogurt: New research from the Netherlands suggests that a long French kiss could be a way to pick up some probiotics.