We wouldn’t blame you if you found 2021 news coverage quite bleak, particularly when it comes to health.
New coronavirus variants, rising R numbers and hospital capacity concerns certainly make for gloomy headlines.
But while the scale of the challenge to public health is certainly daunting, it’s not been all bad – 2021 has also been a bumper year for health and science breakthroughs, some of which are a direct result of, or have been speeded up by, the crisis.
These are the stories that caught our eye this year, with breakthroughs that have positive implications for global health – and one that you might not be ready for quite yet…
Tips for living well – get our free Food and Health newsletter
Inspiring health stories you may have missed
1. mRNA vaccines proved their worth – and there’s potential for more
Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines were the first widely-rolled out versions of a new type of jab made with messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
mRNA is a set of instructions that teaches our cells to make a key piece of the virus (the spike protein that helps it enter human cells). The immune system then develops antibodies to fight this piece, preparing it for if you come into contact with the real deal.
But mRNA technology has much wider potential for fighting disease. Scientists are looking at how to apply similar technology to develop vaccines for other diseases, including rabies, zika, HIV – and even certain cancers.
Learn more about how the different Covid-19 jabs work and the latest on the UK rollout
2. Rapid development of Covid treatments
Bear with us – not all the developments are Covid-related, but it’s worth noting the impressive collaborative efforts that mean we now have a range of medications at our disposal to fight Covid in those who are worst affected.
In November, the UK’s medicines regulator approved molnupirivir, the first pill for treating symptomatic Covid. Research suggests it cuts the risk of hospitalisation or death, and it can be taken at home.
Molnupirivir will be given to patients with a positive Covid-19 test who are at greater risk of serious illness, such as older patients and the immunocompromised.
It joins several other medicines now at our disposal to help people with severe Covid-19 recover better, including the cheap steroid dexamethasone (the usefulness of which was revealed by the groundbreaking UKRI Recovery trial, which tests potential Covid treatments).
Two monoclonal antibody Covid-19 treatments (which are given via intravenous drip) were also approved in the UK this year for protecting the most vulnerable patients.
3. World’s first malaria vaccine gets green light
Malaria is a huge global health problem – it is the most common cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa, killing more than 260,000 under-fives every year.
In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved the world’s first malaria vaccine. It works against the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most malaria cases in Africa.
Scientists have been working on finding a successful jab for more than a century. Experts have described the vaccine, which looks to prevent 4 in 10 malaria cases, as a significant milestone.
It’s not perfect (it requires multiple doses and efficacy is relatively low), but it’s a promising start and one that’s hoped will foster further development of malaria vaccines.
4. New hope for HIV cure and better treatment options
In November, it was reported that a woman from Argentina appears to have rid herself of HIV without any treatment. It’s the second documented case of its kind.
Scientists conducted several in-depth tests and concluded that her immune system must have cleared the virus on its own. Experts hope that digging into how this happened could offer clues that one day lead to a cure for HIV.
In other positive HIV news, thousands of people with the condition are to be offered a more convenient treatment plan on the NHS. It means an end to daily pills for people who would prefer to have the new long-lasting injection. Patients will have the jab (which contains the medicines cabotegravir and rilpivirine) once every two months.
Whether by pill or injection, today’s HIV treatments work to keep viral load so low that the virus cannot be detected or transmitted between people.
5. A blood test for cancer could be on the way
In September, the NHS launched the world’s largest trial of a new blood test that can detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear.
The Galleri test looks for the earliest signs of cancer in the blood by finding chemical changes that leak from tumours. 140,000 volunteers in England will sign up to see how well the test works, and if it could improve cancer care in the NHS.
Diagnosing cancer at an early stage (when treatment is more likely to be successful) is really important. Experts hope the simple blood test will improve the detection of cancers that are often diagnosed too late, such as lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancers.
6. A new obesity medication shows promise
Losing weight (and keeping it off) can be really challenging – as even the most popular diet plans aren’t a magic fix. But in the future, medication (alongside advice on healthy eating and exercise) might help patients shift pounds.
In a major international trial, some participants taking a drug that suppresses appetite lost more than a fifth of their body weight.
The study explored whether a weekly injectable drug called semaglutide (which is often prescribed for type 2 diabetes) could make a meaningful difference to people living with obesity. Participants lost an average of 15kg during the 15-month trial.
The treatment works to reduce appetite by mimicking a hormone called GLP1 that is released after eating a filling meal. Experts believe semaglutide could mark a ‘new era’ in treating obesity, which affects more than 28% of adults in England.
7. Study shows potential for treating spinal cord injuries
Paralysed mice were able to walk again a month after scientists in the USA injected a self-assembling gel at the site of the animals’ spinal cord injuries.
The treatment mimics the connective tissue that provides scaffolding for our body’s cells. It also induces signals to stimulate nerve regeneration. The results were published in the journal Science.
Much more work needs to be done before we’ll know if these results would translate to people. But they are certainly promising – and the researchers hope to start trials in humans as soon as possible.
There are around 50,000 people in the UK with spinal cord injuries, and there are currently few treatment options beyond mobility equipment and physiotherapy.
8. HRT prescriptions got cheaper
Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is about to get less expensive, the government has promised.
HRT is medicine used to treat the symptoms of menopause such as hot flushes, anxiety and insomnia.
A prescription in England costs £9.35 (or £18.70 if two types of hormones are prescribed). As it is usually prescribed on a short-term basis, some women had to pay the prescription charge every month.
But under proposals announced in November, HRT prescriptions will be made available on an annual basis. That means women will only need to pay the prescription charge once a year – potentially saving them up to £200.
Beyond HRT, it’s been a good year for increased awareness of menopause, with Davina McCall’s TV documentary sparking a wider conversation about this important health issue.
Read our guide to menopause symptoms and treatments, including HRT.
9. The potential of psychedelics: why mushrooms might be magic after all
Mushrooms are having a moment, and more broadly, the taboo around psychadelics is shifting, with a number of studies investigating their potential for treating some mental health conditions.
Psychedelics could represent a new frontier in psychiatry for tackling hard-to-treat illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.
One study followed patients in the US, Israel and Canada who were given MDMA as well as talking therapy with a trained therapist. Those given psychedelics were more than twice as likely to no longer have PTSD at the end of the trial, compared to patients who only had talking therapy.
Research is still in early stages, but it’s an exciting area of development.
10. The one we’re not quite ready for: a ‘smart toilet’ that keeps tabs on your health
AI and smart-tech led health will doubtless play an increasing role in our lives, and there are some concerns about the implications for this, but also huge potential to improve global health outcomes.
Whether you’ll want to start with a loo that monitors your movements is up for debate. Scientists from Duke University in the USA have developed a gadget they say can be strapped to an ordinary loo and which, using cameras, motion-sensing and AI technology, checks your stools for signs of disease – even notifying your doctor if there’s a problem.
It might be a hard sell for some people, but the scientists believe their ‘smart toilet’ could be especially helpful for people with certain health conditions, such as IBS and inflammatory bowel disease.
Health apps: can you trust them? – we look into the security of health and symptom checker apps