Top 10 Health Stories of 2006

ByABC News
December 28, 2006, 12:48 PM

Dec. 29, 2006 — -- It's been a busy year in medical news, with stories ranging from E. coli infections to New York City's ban on trans-fats receiving broad coverage. polled dozens of experts to determine which of this year's stories had the most significant implications for health in general. Topping the list was the lingering threat of a bird flu pandemic.

But this wasn't the only health headline that grabbed attention. The development of Gardasil, a vaccine for the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV), could signal the end for cervical cancer, once one of the most deadly cancers among women.

More good news for women came with a finding that breast cancer incidence has been on a steady and significant decline since 2001.

The following list is a top 10 roundup of what our experts felt were the most important health stories of 2006:

As reports of avian influenza outbreaks continued to surface throughout the year, researchers made headway in understanding the H5N1 virus, as well as how this microscopic bug could lead to the next flu pandemic.

But some say the response to the risk shows we are still woefully unprepared.

Although the virus has not yet led to a widespread pandemic influenza, sporadic news of outbreaks continues to test the containment efforts of governments and health organizations around the world.

From contaminated greens to tainted tacos, the series of E. coli outbreaks that began in August forced Americans to question the safety of their food supply.

Health officials blamed contaminated spinach for the first wave of sickness. However, the exact cause of the latest round of E. coli infections -- this time in several Taco Bell restaurants -- remains a mystery.

"It does teach us that our food supply is vulnerable," says John Clements, professor and chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its approval of Gardasil, a vaccine that prevents infection by some strains of the cervical-cancer-causing HPV. Preventing HPV infection could, in turn, reduce women's deaths from the disease, which total 270,000 worldwide and about 4,000 in the United States every year.

"The HPV vaccine, if widely used, has the potential to nearly eliminate cervical cancer and preinvasive neoplasia over the next 20 to 30 years," says Dr. Stephen Rubin, chief of the division of gynecologic oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. "We may be able to say goodbye to one of the world's major cancers, eliminated by a vaccine."

"When administered to adolescent girls, it will prevent the large majority of cases of cervical cancer," says Dr. Stephen Edge of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute at the University at Buffalo. "Now, this killer disease will largely be relegated to history."