Top health news of 2017

The health unit at CBC News has chosen these health stories as the ones with the biggest impact on Canadians this past year — and that are likely to continue to affect us into 2018 and beyond.

Opioid crisis

The rising number of overdose deaths in Canada dominated health news headlines in 2017, and there’s little indication that fatalities will decline anytime soon. 

Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, said once all the data are in from all the provinces and territories, she expects the number of overdose deaths to surpass 4,000 by year end — outpacing last year’s total of 2,861 opioid-related fatalities. “This is a national health public health crisis,” she said recently in an interview.

The increase in deaths is likely the result of fentanyl’s continued infiltration of street narcotics. “There is a very toxic drug supply,” Tam said.

While the situation was acute in British Columbia and Alberta, no region has been left untouched by the crisis. Recently released court documents revealed the daughter of Newfoundland and Labrador premier Dwight Ball abused opioids while he was running for the province’s top job.

Health officials are hopeful that new harm-reduction initiatives, including widening access to the overdose treatment naloxone, will help reduce the number of deaths in 2018.

Pot legalization

While Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, has yet to be sworn into law, 2017 witnessed developments on the road to marijuana legalization that would’ve seemed surreal just five years ago.

Pot smoking

In 2017 legal recreational marijuana started to seem less like a pipe dream. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Finance ministers from all the provinces and territories, the de facto pot merchants, descended on Ottawa looking to set a price for dope and for a bigger cut of the take.  

Meanwhile, legal weed created some strange bedfellows of all political stripes. Nova Scotia’s former NDP premier Darrell Dexter lobbied for the cannabis industry; ex-B.C. Liberal health minister Terry Lake became a vice-president at a medical marijuana company; and former Conservative veterans affair minister Julian Fantino, who once compared legalizing weed to legalizing murder, defended his decision to open a company that connects patients with medical marijuana.

While advocates for recreational pot might be celebrating the prospect of legalized recreational weed, thousands of prescription cannabis patients might end up paying more for their medicine, which will be subject to an additional excise. In 2018, questions about workplace pot policies, retail sales, impaired driving and medical use should become less hazy.

Artificial trans fats ban

This should’ve been the top health story of 2004, when a majority of members of Parliament heeded the advice of the World Health Organization and followed the lead of Denmark by voting to ban artificial trans fats. 

Trans Fats 5 Things

Partially hydrogenated oils, which are used in production of pastries, other baked goods and some packaged goods to extend shelf life, will finally be banned in 2018. (Spencer Green/Associated Press)

But then politics happened. Four elections and five health ministers later, partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of artificial trans fats, were quietly added to Health Canada’s List of Contaminants and Other Adulterating Substances in Foods in September.

These oils elevate levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, and lower “good” cholesterol, which raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Canadian researchers estimate a ban could prevent 12,000 heart attacks in Canada over 20 years. Partially hydrogenated oils will be prohibited in September 2018.

CRISPR

DNA

CRISPR — a way to genetically modify DNA — continues to find innovative new applications from the treatment of rare diseases to changing the properties of crops and even eliminating entire species. (Getty Images)

The powerful gene-editing technology known as Cas9/CRISPR continued to take on bold new applications in 2017. The ability to cut-and-paste DNA means scientists can edit out genes associated with specific genetic diseases. 

In November, scientists in Europe revealed they’d grown genetically altered skin that they transplanted onto a nine-year-old boy whose body rejected his own skin due to a rare genetic disease. Doctors in California tried for the first time to edit a gene inside the body in an attempt to cure a 44-year-old man with Hunter syndrome. The FDA also approved a gene-editing treatment for a rare vision condition. Patients with genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease are watching developments closely.

But the pace of change bordered on alarming after revelations that U.S. military researchers are using CRISPR to develop technologies to wipe out disease-carrying insects and eradicate invasive mammals like rodents and rabbits. Understandably, not all scientists are cool with that.

In 2018 there will likely be even more experimental advances, as well as overdue ethics conversations. And maybe Jennifer Lopez’s NBC bio-terror drama CRISPR will finally debut on TV.

​Assisted dying

2017 was the first full year a terminally ill person could legally end their life in Canada. CBC News confirmed 2,500 patients opted to exercise that right. The youngest was 27 and the oldest was 101. In most cases they were cancer patients, and approximately half of those assisted deaths took place in hospitals. 

Nancy Vickers

Parkinson’s patient Nancy Vickers had to fight Ontario’s health care bureaucracy to fulfil her choice of a medically assisted death. She got her wish in November. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Despite the amendments to the Criminal Code, there’s still some debate surrounding a patient’s right to die, which under the current language is legally permitted only when a competent adult’s death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

The case of a Toronto woman who wanted to end her suffering from Parkinson’s disease highlighted the limits of the legislation. Nancy Vickers, 64, who struggled to walk, breathe and go to the bathroom unassisted, said she wanted to end her life before she became “the drooling vegetable mass that I do sometimes become.” But because her death was not imminent, her doctor was advised by his malpractice insurer not to perform the procedure. She finally found a physician willing to help her.

The advocacy group Dying with Dignity said interpreting the law puts the burden on patients who are already overwhelmed by deteriorating health and are not equipped to navigate the medical and legal systems.

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