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The 5 most underreported health stories of 2014

Local experts weigh in on the health stories that deserved more coverage this year.

Human pap smear showing Chlamydia in the vacuoles at 500x.
Wikimedia Commons/Dr. Lance Liotta Laboratory

Finding something to write about for a daily column on consumer health is not difficult. A steady stream of research — good, bad and indifferent — fills every health reporter’s email box each day. And then events themselves push consumer health topics into the news, whether it be a tragic mass shooting that underscores the need for gun-violence prevention, or the death of Ebola patient in Texas that triggers wide and misplaced fears about that infectious disease here in the United States, or the misinformed comments of a politician-pundit that ignore the importance of women’s affordable access to birth control.

But many, many health stories go unreported — or underreported — both nationally and here in Minnesota (and, yes, in this column, too). To find out what some of those stories might be, Second Opinion asked several local health and medical experts what they considered to be the most overlooked — or, perhaps, misreported — story in their field during the past year? 

1. Failure to pass the Toxic-Free Kids Act. One very contentious issue that boiled up at the end of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session was the Toxic-Free Kids Act.  While there was some minor coverage on the issue, it was something that truly deserved a broader audience.  Basically, the 2014 legislation called for manufacturers of children’s products that contain any of nine toxic chemicals as identified by the Minnesota Health Department to report to the state which products contain these toxic chemicals. The bill didn’t ban use of the chemicals. It didn’t even require product labeling. It simply would have required companies to be more transparent, so that parents could have better information on products that contain these problem chemicals. But with little fanfare, the companies with the chemicals in their children’s products managed to kill the bill.  It will be back in 2015 and deserves attention.  Kathleen Schuler, director of the Healthy Kids and Families Program at Conservation Minnesota

2. Growing epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases. In 2013, there were 23,000 cases of infectious diseases reported to the Minnesota Department of Health that barely made the news, yet a small outbreak of mumps this year has been covered thoroughly. These infectious diseases that commonly fly under the media radar are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The STD epidemic is exploding in our state, but the topic gets swept under the rug. Chlamydia has become Minnesota’s number one infectious disease with nearly 19,000 cases reported in 2013. Left untreated, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis can lead to devastating health effects including infertility, blindness and death. The good news is that these STDs are preventable and curable. Most people with an STD will not have symptoms, so it’s extremely important to get tested. We know how to prevent these diseases, but we can’t continue to deal with this behind closed doors. We need more people to talk about prevention and testing to curb this epidemic. 
— Kristen R. Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control at the Minnesota Department of Health

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3. Attempts to downplay dangers of antidepressant medications. This year marked the 10-year anniversary of the Black-Box warning on antidepressant medications, which notes these drugs may cause suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth. In June 2014, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a study claiming that “Safety warnings about antidepressants and widespread media coverage decreased antidepressant use, and there were simultaneous increases in suicide attempts among young people.” This paper led to several press releases and media stories decrying the Black-Box warning — some of which suggested the warning should be withdrawn. However, many critical online responses of the study’s methods emerged. Most damning: It appears that there was not a spike in suicidal behaviors following the FDA warnings. In youth, compared to placebo, antidepressants offer a) no benefit for overall wellbeing, b) minimal benefit for depressive symptoms, c) increased (though rare) suicidality and hostile behavior. Accurate descriptions of data are important when weighing treatment options. Glen Spielmans, associate professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University

4. The Affordable Care Act’s impact on individuals. As we recall 2014, the first year of full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, we will remember news media coverage of partisan bickering over the blundered insurance marketplace roll-out, competing perspectives on the law’s impact, and punditry about how Obamacare shaped the Republicans’ midterm election win. What we didn’t hear loudly enough are the stories and voices of the many people whose lives meaningfully improved because of the law. People, like my friend Ashley: a 36-year-old living in Connecticut with stage IV cancer, who bought reliable, affordable health insurance this year despite her “pre-existing condition,” an impossibility before 2014. Ashley lived her life with cancer the way she wanted to—participating in a bike race, working part-time to resettle refugees—because a law was passed in 2010 that allowed her to do so. These are the stories I wish I had heard more of in 2014.  — Sarah Gollust, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health

5. Failure to expand health coverage to all: The most underreported health story for 2014 was how many people were hurt by the decisions of 23 states to not take advantage of the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion. These political decisions denied health insurance to millions of persons despite strong evidence that health insurance saves lives, reduces disability and enables students to stay in school longer. The second most underreported or misreported story of the year is how seriously the United States’ failure to create a workable health care system for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants harms the national interest of all of us. Immigrants are not especially ill, but it is bad public health policy to have their vision go uncorrected as they drive, their infectious diseases untreated as they work among us and their post-traumatic stress disorder let be as they raise children and build their lives. Dr. Steve Miles, professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School