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Advances And Setbacks In Global Health During 2013

A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a vaccination campaign in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
From the fight against HIV/AIDS and polio to the spread of new deadly viruses, from the development of artificial-limb technology to new regulations allowing better access to pain killers in Ukraine -- 2013 had its share of highs and lows when it came to health and medicine.

2013 saw advances in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Scientists from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research announced in January that they had discovered how to modify a protein in HIV to protect against common infections. Associate Professor David Harrich said that if clinical trials prove successful, the treatment could be an effective way of disarming AIDS.

"This therapy is potentially a cure for AIDS. So it's not a cure for HIV infection, but it potentially could end the disease. This protein present in immune cells would help to maintain a healthy immune system so that patients would be able to handle normal infections," Harrich said.

In another potential breakthrough, scientists announced in March that a baby born with HIV appears to have been cured after very early treatment with standard drug therapy. More tests need to be carried out to determine if the treatment could have the same effect on other children, but the Mississippi child had no signs of infection after about a year off HIV drugs.

On the polio front, outbreaks in Pakistan and Syria threatened to derail efforts to eradicate the highly infectious disease.

In Pakistan, one of the three countries where polio remains endemic, opposition from Islamic militants has hampered efforts to immunize children, with vaccination teams kidnapped or murdered in some cases.

As a result, Pakistan recorded more than 70 cases of polio this year compared to 58 for all of 2012. Nigeria recorded 50 cases and Afghanistan only nine during 2013, compared to 110 and 31, respectively, the previous year.

In Focus: The Plight Of Russia's Terminally Ill

In November, the World Health Organization (WHO) linked an outbreak of polio in Syria that has paralyzed 13 children to a strain of the virus from Pakistan. Syria eradicated polio 14 years ago, but vaccination programs have suffered in nearly three years of civil war.

World health experts have expressed concern about a deadly virus first detected in 2012. The so-called coronavirus can cause severe pneumonia-like symptoms as well as damage to the kidneys and other organs. It is closely related to SARS, which killed some 800 people in a global epidemic in 2003.

Established cases remain relatively few -- 160 in the Middle East and Europe -- but the death rate among patients is high, with 68 fatalities so far. The virus appears to be capable of human-to-human transmission, something that makes it far easier to spread.

Deadly Virus

Gregory Hartl, an epidemic diseases expert with WHO, says the virus is from the same family as both the common cold virus and SARS.

"This virus is slightly different to both of those. It seems for the moment to be less transmissible than SARS, and less transmissible than the common cold virus, and obviously more deadly than either of those two viruses, for the moment," Hartl says.

The coronavirus scare comes amid fresh reports of another deadly virus in China. Some 140 human cases of H7N9 have been reported since February, with 45 deaths. However there is no evidence that this bird-flu virus can cause human-to-human transmission.

(WATCH: Targeted Muscle Re-innervation)

Good news came in the form of artificial limbs that users can control with their brains.

The U.S. military research branch DARPA this summer posted a video showing former Army Staff Sergeant Glen Lehman, who lost his right arm while serving in Iraq, using an artificial arm to lift a coffee cup to his mouth, toss a scarf, and pick up a tennis ball.

The prosthetic limb uses a method called Targeted Muscle Re-innervation. It allows arm movement by taking nerves that once carried motor signals from the brain to the missing arm and connecting those nerves to others located near a large muscle, such as the biceps or pectorals.

Deserving of mention in 2013 was Ukraine's effort to allow terminally ill patients greater access to strong pain relief medication, such as morphine.

New regulations approved in May were a first for a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and simplified the prescription and dispensing of strong pain killers that could reduce unnecessary suffering.

Diederik Lohman, a senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the measure is a victory for terminally ill patients who previously faced the prospect of enduring a slow, painful death at home.

"There was a point where their doctors would say, 'Well, there's nothing we can do for you anymore, because you failed third-line cancer treatment, or the antiretroviral drugs aren't working, or you have incurable TB,' and those patients would often just be sent home with [the message]: 'There's nothing the medical system can do for you, so go home and die,'" Lohman says.