2012: Obamacare, new obesity drugs, gun violence, Lance Armstrong, and pot highlight the year in health

The Supreme Court upheld part of President Barack Obama’s health care package that deals with individual insurance requirements.

As we look back, 2012 will go down as the year that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka “Obama care,” survived, that we were reminded that random stuff — fungal meningitis, West Nile Virus, flu — are still out to get us and that the marijuana debate likely turned a corner toward guarded acceptance in the United States.

Meanwhile, the person other than Obama to generate the most debate over health in America wasn’t a doctor or health guru, but the outgoing mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg drew the ire of some for limiting the size of soft drinks, as well as announced plans to require hospitals to serve healthy food, and he took a stand on gun control.

Locally, Charleston’s dynamic health community — its hospitals, health charities and fitness industry — created waves with research, cutting-edge technologies, record-breaking fundraising efforts and innovations in not getting sick in the first place.

Here’s a look back at the year that will be history in one week:

New obesity drugs
While the annual state-by-state statistics on obesity got more grim in 2012 (36 percent of U.S. adults are obese), the first drugs for obesity since 1999 were approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

This past summer, the FDA approved both Belviq and Qsymia and signaled it will be more willing to consider drugs as a viable way to treat some forms of obesity, noting that it is a “major public health concern.”

Bloomberg action
While the wheels of the federal government have been slow to respond to the obesity epidemic, cities — notably New York City and its mayor — have been among the most proactive.

Charleston was among those, for example, that started a citywide health initiative, Lighten Up Charleston, in March with a goal of recording 100,000 pounds of weight loss through healthy eating and exercise.

But it was Bloomberg who did the most by proposing a limit on soft drinks and other sugary beverages to 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and street carts because of the role overconsumption of such beverages plays in the obesity epidemic.

Both the proposal and its official approval by the city’s Board of Health in September drew accusations from opponents who called the city a “nanny state.” Barring successful legal action, the limit (which allows people to return for refills) is set to go into effect in March. Bloomberg’s next target is getting hospitals in the city to stop serving junk food.

A healthy city
The Charleston area is emerging as a health-conscious city, from its continued embracing of locally grown produce and record-breaking participation in community health activities to its expanding array of fitness alternatives.

Besides the growth of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs, the year marked the inauguration of the most public urban garden in Charleston to date: the Medical University of South Carolina’s Urban Farm.

The farm is near the heart of campus off Bee and President streets and already has provided the location for an array of public events that promote healthy living.

Meanwhile, events such as the Cooper River Bridge Run, American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, Komen Lowcountry Race for the Cure, Turkey Day Run and Reindeer Run broke records as more people embraced exercising as a community as a motivation to move.

Expansion also continued in an array of facilities, events and special classes.

Medical news
One of the more futuristic surgeries available at MUSC’s Storm Eye Institute involves the implantation of a pea-size telescope in the eye of person with advanced stage macular degeneration.

On the research side, MUSC Children’s Hospital will use a new $3 million grant to study the effects of vitamin D on pregnant women and their babies. The project’s directors want their findings to shape public policy on the recommended doses of the supplement that mothers-to-be should take.

One shocker, to some, came this year with the announcement that downtown’s Roper Hospital will no longer deliver babies. The three-hospital health care system of which Roper is a part will expand its labor and delivery unit at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley.

The West Ashley hospital expects to deliver 1,800 babies this year. The labor and delivery expansion will allow for up to 4,000 newborns yearly, said Roper Chief Executive Officer Matt Severance.

By consolidating obstetrics services, the health care system will raise quality and lower cost, he said.

Obamacare endures
The Affordable Care Act survived with a 5-4 June vote in the Supreme Court upholding the individual insurance requirement and the re-election of President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, who had vowed to repeal Obamacare “on Day One” of his presidency.

Meanwhile, several state governments, including South Carolina’s, continue to drag their feet by not deciding to build their own health-insurance exchanges, online services that allow individuals to purchase private insurance if not provided by employers.

Refusal won’t stop exchanges in their states. Under the law, states that don’t create an exchange leave it to the federal government to deal with the task.

The bulk of the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Energy drinks
“Energy drinks,” or soft drinks hopped up with caffeine, B vitamins and herbs, came to the forefront in 2012 amid allegations that a 14-year-old Maryland girl died because she did not understand the risks of drinking two 32-ounce cans of the Monster Energy beverage over a 24-hour period.

The girl’s mother has sued the maker of Monster.

The company has said its products are safe and did not cause the teen’s death.

The FDA does not regulate caffeine in energy drinks, but a tenfold increase in emergency room visits by people who consumed caffeine energy drinks is described in a report issued by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 16,053 emergency room visits associated with consuming an energy drink took place in 2009.

Pot passes
Long a pipe dream for marijuana advocates, the legalization of pot, beyond its medicinal uses, became reality when voters in Washington and Colorado in November approved initiatives to legalize, control and tax it.

Marijuana remains an intriguing herbal remedy for the relief of an array of diseases, including glaucoma, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, several cancers and Alzheimer’s.

Many studies on the treatments are under way.

The main health concern about marijuana is smoking it.

The tar in pot smoke is chemically similar to that found in cigarette smoke and includes many of the same carcinogens.

But other ways to consume it, from vaporizing it to drinking, eating or taking it in capsule form, can get around that problem.

Life is dangerous
From year to year, we never know what bug is going to emerge and cause havoc and panic.

In 2012, it was West Nile Virus, fungal meningitis and, trending, an uptick in the flu bug, all of which made it to South Carolina.

West Nile, a mosquito-borne virus, made a comeback in 2012 with 5,387 human cases, including 243 deaths. Texas was the hardest hit with one-third of all cases in the United States. Of the deaths, three were from South Carolina.

State health officials say cases of West Nile rose from about four annually to more than 40 this year. One reason to hope for a cold winter.

Nationally, fungal meningitis infections and fatalities caused by tainted steroid injections led to concern among local pain treatment centers. The infection sickened more than 500 and killed 36.

After a low-key flu season for 2011-12, the CDC reports that the United States is “experiencing an early flu season with high levels of activity concentrated in the south central and southeastern regions of the nation at this time,” including South Carolina.

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