2014 Public Health Year-in-Review: Part 4

With so many significant health moments in 2014, I’m going to double-up the issues discussed in this week’s post for an extra dose of our year in review series.

7. Blowing Smoke: The Research Behind E-cigarettes

The popularity of e-cigarettes skyrocketed in 2014, as the smoke-free nicotine delivery device gained traction with the younger generation. These battery-powered vaporizers allow the user to receive a dose of nicotine through an inhaled aerosol, as opposed to traditional tobacco smoke. Electronic cigarettes were first developed nearly a decade ago in China; they then made their way into the U.S. seven years ago and are now commercially sold on every corner.

Though the ads for e-cigarettes have boasted the product as a safe alternative to tobacco, recent data has made this claim questionable. The CDC recently reported that between 2010 and 2014, 2,405 people contacted their local poison control center to report illness due to electronic cigarette use. These e-smokers experienced vomiting, nausea and eye irritation. Researchers suggest e-cigarettes can also cause acute nicotine toxicity in users. It should also be noted that a growing number of studies have identified teens and young adults as the population with the highest growth of e-cigarette usage.

While the FDA is scrambling to learn more about the harmful effects of these “e-cigs,” countries like Singapore and Brazil have already banned the product, declaring that not enough is known about the chemicals in these devices and how they impact humans. Yet, one thing is for sure, e-cigarettes are not going anywhere anytime soon. To date, there are over 460 brands of e-cigarettes available to consumers nationwide.

8. Successes for HIV Prevention and Gay Rights

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has a global presence, with over 2.3 million new infections each year. Over time, researchers have sought to treat and prevent this deadly virus through the development of antiretroviral therapies. One such medication, Truvada, was developed by Gilead Sciences and released this year. Truvada, which has been called a “miracle drug” by some, is the first medication approved to reduce the risk of HIV infection in uninfected individuals engaging in high-risk sexual activity with HIV-infected partners.

The release of this pre-exposure prophylactic has raised some concern, specifically about whether or not providing and promoting an HIV-preventative drug encourages high-risk sexual behavior. Public health professionals often debate this sort of question. One commonly cited example is the idea that the distribution of condoms will promote sexual activity among adolescents.

Although Gilead Sciences emphasizes that Truvada is to be used as part of a comprehensive approach to safe sex practices, a lively debate took place in 2014 between activists and HIV/AIDS groups about the matter. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation rallied against the drug, taking the stance that its availability would cause condom use to dramatically drop off in the gay community. The group ended up calling for the FDA to reject the pill altogether. On the other hand, you had the World Health Organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the Human Rights Campaign firmly backing this new HIV prevention method.

To date, the drug is available for use in the U.S. and is even covered by most health insurers; however, the uninsured should expect to pay over $1,000 a month for Truvada. This new prophylactic is a groundbreaking medical development and, although it faced controversy in 2014, should be widely celebrated in public health circles.

Another success for gay men in 2014 had much to do with giving the gift of life. For the first-time since 1983, healthy gay or bisexual men were permitted to donate blood. However, this change comes with some strings attached. Beginning in 2015, potential gay and bisexual blood donors can donate blood so long as they have abstained from sexual activity for one year prior to the donation. Those having engaged in homosexual intercourse prior to 1977 are still under the long-standing lifetime ban from donating blood.

Next week will conclude the Year-In-Review series. So be sure to check back for the last two major public health issues of 2014!