From the moment the World Health Organization declared it a global emergency on the 30th of January, the world’s population and media understandably focused on little else but COVID-19. However, amid the pandemic, life carried on as best it could for people with long-term health conditions and the scientists working to develop treatments.
News fatigue is very real, and finding health stories that don’t relate to the virus crisis might require some digging, but there are some positives to be unearthed from the past year. In case you missed those breakthroughs, as well as some of the more sobering news, we’ve compiled some of 2020’s biggest health stories, broken down month by month.
January – Treatment for Range of Cancers Could Be Within Us
People with cancer have been hit hard by the pandemic, with delays in treatment and those taking immunosuppressants at increased risk of complications if infected with coronavirus.
However, before the pandemic fully took hold in the West, scientists discovered a way to alter cells that are part of our immune system, to make them able to recognise and kill a range of cancer cells. Although the research is still at an early stage and more safety checks are needed ahead of human trials, experts say there is “enormous potential”.
February – Eat Meat, Don’t Eat Meat
A study found that eating meat increases the risk of heart disease and early death, but these findings contradicted earlier research that said cutting down on red and processed meats leads to few health benefits for most people.
The conclusion: Eating too much red meat is bad for you and the planet, so eat it in moderation, at no more than three portions a week.
Graffiti about a discredited 5G conspiracy theory. HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS
March – 5G Is Safe
5G is safe and poses no specific risk to human health, the International Commission on Non‐Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) found. “We know parts of the community are concerned about the safety of 5G, and we hope the updated guidelines will help put people at ease,” Eric van Rongen, the chair of the ICNIRP, said.
The radiation watchdog later released a memo clarifying that the electromagnetic fields generated by 5G do not cause COVID-19 or make people who have it sicker, after conspiracy theorists peddled myths linking the telecoms infrastructure to the virus.
April – PrEP Available in England
A drug that effectively eliminates the possibility of contracting HIV was made available in England on the NHS after years of campaigning. PrEP had already been available in Scotland and Wales, so the change means improved access to the one-a-day antiretroviral pill for more of the UK’s population.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the time that the rollout would benefit “tens of thousands” of people and help to end HIV transmission by 2030.
Photo: ERIN SCOTT / REUTERS
May – Trump Cuts Ties with WHO
Donald Trump severed all U.S. ties with the World Health Organization, which he accused of being “China-centric”.
The US is the global health body’s biggest donor, paying in about $450 million a year. While the president’s decision was linked to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth mentioning because the wider implications would have been enormous.
Thankfully, Joe Biden has promised to rescind Trump’s move. “Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health,” the president-elect tweeted during campaigning ahead of November’s election. “On my first day as President, I will rejoin the @WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage.”
June – Baby Dies at UK Women’s Prison
A baby died at a prison after a woman went into labour on the toilet. The inmate at HMP Styal in Cheshire was unaware she was pregnant and had been experiencing severe stomach pains for several days. The death was the second stillbirth of a baby born to a woman in prison in nine months. Three months before, I had written about calls to release pregnant women from prison because lives were at risk.
July – ‘Lives Ruined’ by Medical Misogyny
A culture of dismissive and arrogant attitudes among clinicians – in which complications from treatments were labelled as “women’s problems” – ruined many lives, a major inquiry found. The UK government-ordered review heard “harrowing” details about vaginal mesh implants, an epilepsy drug found to harm unborn babies, and hormone pregnancy tests thought to be associated with birth defects and miscarriages.
“For the women concerned, this was tantamount to a complete denial of their concerns and being written off by a system that was supposed to care,” the report said.
A woman with her baby outside a hospital in Gulu, northern Uganda. Photo: Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
August – Uganda Adds Maternal Healthcare to Constitution
The right to maternal healthcare was granted a place in Uganda’s constitution in a landmark court ruling. The government was also told to fund maternity care sufficiently. The human rights case was brought after the deaths of two women, Sylvia Nalubowa and Jennifer Anguko, in childbirth at health centres in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Justice Barishaki Cheborion said: “The deaths of Anguko and Nalubowa were a result of non-availability of basic maternal health services and negligence of health workers.”
September – Facebook Clamps Down On Health Groups
The social network announced in September that it had stopped recommending health groups to users. People can still search for these groups – where members give each other medical advice – or invite friends to join communities they are part of, but in not promoting them the policy aims to tackle fake news and connect users with accurate information.
“It’s crucial people get their health information from authoritative sources,” Facebook said.
October – Record Drugs Deaths in England and Wales
A record 4,393 drug-related deaths were registered in England and Wales in 2019, data published in October showed.
Such deaths have risen for eight consecutive years, and the increase in the rate of drug deaths among women rose for the tenth year to 49.1 deaths per million from 47.5 in 2018. The drug-death rate among men decreased to 104.7 per million from 105.4 in the previous year. A north-south divide was also clear, with the northeast of England having the highest death rate.
Ian Hamilton, an academic at the University of York with an interest in addiction and mental health, suggests the split likely correlates with social inequality, as the “areas of greatest social deprivation record rates of death that are significantly higher than more affluent regions”.
November – HIV Diagnoses in UK’s Gay and Bisexual Men at 20-Year Low
The number of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV fell to its lowest number in two decades, according to a report from Public Health England (PHE) published in November. Overall, the number of people with a new HIV diagnosis fell by 10 percent. The decline was not a result of PrEP being made available or lockdowns reducing hookups, because the figures are from 2019.
However, Dr Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at PHE, cautioned that “inequalities that exist around sexuality, ethnicity and geography” must be addressed to achieve further progress.
December – Air Pollution Listed as Cause of Death of Child
A nine-year-old girl became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.
Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived in Lewisham, tragically died following an asthma attack in 2013. Ella had been exposed to excessive levels of pollution, coroner Philip Barlow said at the conclusion of the two-week inquest. Levels of nitrogen dioxide near her home had exceeded World Health Organization and European Union guidelines, he added.
Ella’s mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, set up a foundation in her daughter’s name to campaign for the right to breathe clean air, with this helping to mobilise others to form similar groups, such as Choked Up.