As in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was ever-present in the news in 2021. Although more than half of the population of the United States is vaccinated against, new variants pose a threat as they may be more easily spread than the original virus. The pandemic has also halted progress toward the elimination of other diseases.
However, the health news of this year wasn’t all doom and gloom. Progress is being made toward combating a potentially deadly disease that affects almost half of the world’s population. Not only that, but an outbreak of another fatal disease was declared over in just a few months.
Here is some of the top health news of 2021.
WHO approves first-ever malaria vaccine
Malaria is an acute febrile disease that is caused by a parasite and spread to humans through the bite of infected mosquitos. In 2019, there were 229 million cases of the disease, and over 400,000 deaths. Nearly half the world’s population was at risk for contracting the disease that same year.
However, there is new hope in the fight against malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) approved the first-ever malaria vaccine, RTS,S/AS01, in October. Two of WHO’s advisory panels—one for immunization and the other for malaria—determined that the vaccine provides significant protection against the disease and deaths. The panels also determined that the vaccine is safe and cost-effective.
To that end, WHO is conducting a pilot program in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. More than 2.3 million doses have been administered to over 800,000 children in those countries. The vaccine can be given to children starting at 5 months, and it can be given along with other childhood vaccines. Although WHO still recommends countries that are susceptible to malaria continue to use existing interventions such as preventive treatments and insecticide-treated bed nets, the malaria vaccine is another tool in the arsenal to combat the disease.
Also of note: In February 2021, El Salvador became the first Central American country—and the third in the Americas—to be certified malaria-free by the World Health Organization. Certification of malaria elimination is granted to countries that have “proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that the chain of local transmission of all human parasites has been interrupted nationwide for at least the past 3 consecutive years.”
China was also certified malaria-free in June following a 70-year-effort. It is the first country in the WHO Western Pacific Region to be granted a malaria-free certification in over 30 years.
Ebola outbreak in the Republic of Guinea ends
The Republic of Guinea’s Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization declared an end to an Ebola outbreak in June 2021. Ebola is a rare and often fatal disease that causes problems with how the body’s blood clots. The outbreak began in February 2021 in the sub-prefecture of Gouécké, Nzérékoré Region—the same area where the 2014-2016 outbreak began. It is the first time the disease was reported in Guinea since the previous outbreak ended in 2016
WHO helped shipped 24,000 Ebola vaccine doses and supported the vaccination of nearly 11,000 high-risk individuals, including more than 2,800 frontline workers. In total, there were 16 confirmed and 7 probable cases reported. There were 12 deaths.
New COVID-19 variants emerge
All viruses change or mutate, but not always at the same rate. In the case of the coronavirus, there are two mutations or variants that are currently of concern: the Delta variant and Omicron variant.
First reported in India in December 2020 and first identified in the U.S. in March 2021, the Delta variant spreads more easily than other variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It may also cause more severe cases of COVID-19 than other variants. Although the COVID-19 vaccine is effective against most infections, it is still possible for vaccinated individuals to experience “breakthrough infections.” People who are fully vaccinated who become infected with the Delta variant can spread it to others.
Currently, experts are on high alert as the Omicron variant spreads to more countries. First reported in South Africa in November, early evidence suggests Omicron has a higher re-infection rate than other variants. Omicron has been identified in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, the U.K., Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and the Netherlands. More and more countries are imposing travel bans to stop the spread of the variant.
Health issues related to global warming on the rise
Global warming is not just an environmental issue, but a health one as well. Two reports released in October, both of which were commissioned by The Lancet, found that global health indicators connected to climate change—heat deaths, hunger, and infectious disease—are getting worse. In the U.S., drought, heat, and fire caused the biggest health problems. A previous study showed that heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and Canada this summer could not have happened without climate change caused by humans. In California, heat waves are getting hotter, more intense, and more deadly. They are also lasting longer than in the past.
Progress against measles wanes amid COVID pandemic
Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease that can be especially dangerous for babies and children. Although the number of reported measles cases have decreased, progress toward eliminating the disease for good is declining. According to WHO and CDC, more than 22 million infants missed their first dose of the measles vaccine in 2020. This marks the largest increase in 20 years and makes it possible for measles outbreaks to occur. CDC’s Global Immunization Director Kevin Cain said disease detection and diagnostics were diverted to support COVID-19 responses.
COVID vaccine approved for children 5 to 11
A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel recommended a lower dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 in October. The Biden administration said it would administer the vaccine to children as soon as it was authorized by the FDA and CDC—the latter of which gave its recommendation in November. The administration has enough doses to vaccinate all 28 million 5- to 11-year-olds in the United States.
As 2021 comes to an end, it’s important to keep the year’s health news in perspective and learn from it. What the top health news of 2022 will be remains to be seen as the world continues to fight COVID-19, its variants, and a host of other global health issues. Strides continue to be made in a number of areas, and there may be a positive outlook on the horizon with continued research and everyone doing their part.