At the dawn of 2015, we thought it important to reflect on the major health issues that defined 2014. A year characterised by the life-threatening disease, Ebola in West Africa; suicide and pain associated with mental illness; an ongoing hike in deaths from cancer and recreational drug abuse; claims that medicinal marijuana could save lives; along with the Federal Government’s co-payment plans.

The Ebola crisis

“It is the world’s first Ebola epidemic, and it’s spiraling out of control. It’s bad now, and it’s going to get worse in the very near future. There is still a window of opportunity to tamp it down, but that window is closing. We really have to act now.” – Dr Tom Frieden, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The “Ebola epidemic” forced the world to unite in mounting an attack on this deadly virus that spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infection person showing symptoms, such as fever or vomiting. The most recent World Health Organization (WHO) figures (December 16, 2014) estimate the death toll from Ebola as close to 7,400 to date, with 19,000 people infected throughout West Africa.

During 2014, we witnessed Ebola scares in many countries external to Africa, including Australia and the US. Notably, in October 2014, Red Cross Nurse, Sue Ellen Kovac, was twice-tested for Ebola at a hospital in Cairns following her evacuation from Sierra Leone with a fever. Fortunately, she tested negative for the disease.

In the US, WHO recorded one death from Ebola, while 649 healthcare workers world-wide are known to have contracted the virus, 365 of whom have tragically died.

UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who visited an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone on Friday, December 19, 2014, said the spread of the virus was slowing and that there was reason to be “cautiously optimistic” about ridding the region of the disease, but cautioned there is still a very long way to go before the epidemic subsides.

Cancer overtakes heart disease as Australia’s biggest killer

Cancer claimed the lives of 8.2 million people worldwide in 2012. Tragically, more than 40,000 of these people were fellow Australians.

According to WHO’s World Cancer Report published in February, 2014, cancer surpassed heart disease as the biggest killer globally in 2011, with this trend continuing. Up to 3.7 million of these cancer deaths could have been prevented through lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation, weight loss, healthy weight maintenance and less alcohol consumption.

The Report cited lung cancer as overall the biggest cancer killer, and the largest among men. For women, breast cancer was responsible for the most cancer deaths.

Prostate cancer is Australia’s most commonly diagnosed cancer, which claims the lives of more than 3,300 Australian men each year.

“Many cancers including prostate cancer are disease of ageing and the population is ageing. Unfortunately the lifestyle that we live in Australia – lack of exercise, poor diet and high alcohol consumption are certainly risk factors,” said Prostate Cancer Foundation CEO, Anthony Lowe.

Furthermore, Australians and New Zealanders are twice as likely to be diagnosed with melanoma compared to any other race in the world.

Mental health

In 2014, the untimely suicide of comic genius, Robin Williams, placed mental health up the global public health agenda.

Mass media coverage of mental health stories in 2014 followed Williams’ death, the crux of which confirmed people’s willingness to tackle this challenging and highly stigmatised topic, and to lend support to those in need.

The latest ABS figures reveal more than 2,000 Australians die from suicide each year. In fact, suicide has been identified as the leading cause of death among Australian men aged less than 44 years and women under 34. To further compound this grave situation, for every completed suicide, more than 30 people attempt suicide.

In an article penned for The Guardian Newspaper on Friday, December 19, 2014, doctor of neuroscience and contributing writer, Dean Burnett posed the question, “Is the tide really turning against mental health?”

In his article, Burnett explored how recent media coverage, including social media, celebrity support and general understanding and education involving mental health has helped to turn the tide in mental health. He claims people are no longer afraid or embarrassed to discuss mental health issues, to share their opinions, or turn their backs on this serious public health issue.

Burnett concludes, There are still countless challenges presented by mental health problems and associated stigmas. But in order for challenges to be dealt with, they have to first be acknowledged as worth dealing with by those in positions to do so. And maybe, just maybe, this started happening in 2014.”

It’s just so unfortunate that countless tragedies have occurred, including the recent suicide of Robin Williams, for society to recognise the severity of issues confronting those living with mental health problems.

Australians the world’s highest users of recreational drugs

In July, 2014, the United Nations released a World Drug Report, ranking Australians as the world’s most prolific users of the illicit recreational drug, ecstasy; second for opioid use; third for methamphetamines; fourth for cocaine and seventh for cannabis use.

Dubbed the ‘love drug’, ecstasy is often taken as a mood-inhibiting substance, commonly

eliciting heightened feelings of confidence and happiness, and a loss of inhibition. However the drug also accelerates the heart rate and breathing, increases blood pressure and sweating, which can lead to cardiac arrest, dehydration, stroke and kidney failure, and is often linked to dilusional hyponatremia, where a user drowns their brain by drinking too much water.

The Australian Government’s Department of Health offers information about the effects of ecstasy and how people can seek advice or help on its National Drugs Campaign Website.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation President, Dr Alex Wodak said, “There is certainly greater demand for drugs and that is likely because of economic and social conditions. People on one hand have more money to spend, and on the other, there are more people who are at risk — and those that are at risk are getting worse because of high unemployment, poor job prospects, lack of optimism.”

As illicit drug consumption continues to rise, so too does the number of deaths from drug overdose.

According to the UN report, more than three Australians die from drug overdose each day – see the International Overdose Awareness Day Facts & Stats sheets here for more information.

To learn more, call the Drug Info Line on 1300 85 85 84, or for immediate help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

GP Co-Pay

Despised from the outset, the Abbott Government had its work cut out for it with their proposed introduction of a GP Co-Pay model to Australia in 2014.

Whispers involving a co-payment model had been circulating for a while prior to May 2014 when the GP Co-Pay was officially announced as part of the Federal Budget.

The model stated patients would have to pay $7 from their own pocket each GP visit – a Budget measure that quickly became one of the least popular in history.

The GP Co-Pay attracted so much public opposition that Prime Minister, The Hon. Tony Abbott MP and his Government, finally conceded at a media conference on December 9, 2014 that this measure would be scrapped from the Budget.

Notwithstanding, the public may still be forced to fork out $5 for per doctor visit – however the decision to charge this fee now rests with the doctor.

After scrapping the co-pay proposal, the Government cut the doctor’s Medicare rebate by $5 per patient, hence any non-concessional patient who visits their GP could be charged to compensate for this lost revenue.

Continue to watch this space in 2015 as the saga is likely to continue.

Medical marijuana

The potential medicinal benefits of marijuana have been debated for some time.

In 2014, ill members of the public emerged from the shadows, claiming marijuana had in fact saved their lives.

Terminally ill cancer patient, Dan Haslan, 24, from Tamworth in rural NSW became one of Australia’s most recognised cases for the use of medical marijuana.

In May, 2014, Dan, flanked by his wife and parents, announced medical marijuana was indeed responsible for saving his life, and called for its legalisation in NSW.

Throughout 2014, Dan’s plea for the legalisation of medical marijuana gained momentum, as other terminally ill patients voiced similar stories, supported by clinical evidence proffered by professionals representing the medical and scientific communities.

In an unprecedented move on December 21, 2014, NSW Premier, The Hon. Mike Baird MP announced three medical marijuana trials would be funded in New South Wales for the treatment of children with severe epilepsy, adults with terminal illness, and individuals experiencing nausea caused by chemotherapy.

In summary, 2014 was characterised by numerous challenges and discoveries in the world of health and medicine.

VIVA! Communications looks forward to continuing to report on further advances, breakthroughs and pertinent topics in the world of science, medicine and health + wellness this year.

Best of health to you for 2015!