December 12, 2014 3:49 pm

Year in review: 5 health care blunders in 2014

Citing an anthrax scare and a recurring problem with safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, July 11, 2014, shut down two research labs and stopped shipping highly dangerous germs to other labs.

(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
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TORONTO – An anthrax scare that exposed more safety problems at a CDC lab, a faulty morning-after pill for women, and a tuberculosis nightmare for more than 700 newborn babies and their parents – these are just some of the health care headaches that rocked 2014.

Global News takes a look at five health care blunders that left doctors, patients and health officials scrambling this year.

An anthrax scare at the CDC


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In June, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conceded that about 75 staff members could have been accidentally exposed to anthrax because of a “safety” problem.

Workers in a high-level biosecurity lab were preparing anthrax samples to be used for researching germs – their procedure didn’t completely inactivate the bacteria, though. Some of the anthrax could have been airborne, the CDC said.

READ MORE: CDC probes possible anthrax exposure in U.S. lab

Workers in the lab who later came into contact with these potentially infectious samples weren’t wearing adequate protective gear either. They thought the samples were properly sterilized.

READ MORE: CDC shuts 2 labs, stops shipping dangerous germs after anthrax scare

In the incident’s wake, investigations led to even more security lapses: disinfectants used during decontamination were expired, some of the lab workers who were potentially exposed weren’t examined until five days later, anthrax was stored in unlocked refrigerators in an unrestricted hallway and the key to one fridge sat in its lock.

Ultimately, the CDC shut two labs and stopped shipping dangerous germs.

More than 700 babies potentially exposed to TB in Texas hospital

It’s not exactly what new parents want to hear: Texas authorities in September warned that more than 700 newborns and 40 frontline health care workers were exposed to an employee who had an active case of tuberculosis.

The El Paso Department of Public Health said that a hospital employee tested positive for the disease – he or she worked in a nursery at the Providence Memorial Hospital and interacted with patients for months.

READ MORE: More than 700 babies exposed to tuberculosis in Texas hospital

Health officials had to follow up with 43 employees and the parents of 706 babies – they insisted that these people return to hospital for screening free of charge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also helped out by sending out letters and making phone calls.

The exposure likely took place for over a year, from September 2013 to August 2014 when the worker was placed on leave.

Five babies tested positive for tuberculosis after being exposed, but the El Paso Department of Public Health said none of the children had “active” TB.

READ MORE: Official says hospital could have prevented TB panic

Tuberculosis spreads when a person with an active TB case coughs or sneezes, releasing droplets with the germs into the air. However, TB isn’t highly contagious. It usually requires an extended period of close contact to be spread.

But once the bacteria is in the body, it can lay dormant for months or years before becoming an active case of TB.

‘Morning after’ pill to carry warnings for heavier women (after officials realized heavier women might need two doses instead of one) 

In March, Health Canada told sellers of the “morning after” contraceptive pill to slap labels on their products that warn women of reduced effectiveness if the user weighs more than 165 pounds.

Plan B, Next Choice, Norvelo and Option 2 are available across the country without a prescription, but the federal agency warned consumers that depending on their weight, it may not work.

READ MORE: ‘Morning after’ pills to carry warning labels for heavier women

Morning after pills, used to prevent pregnancy, are typically taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex or a “contraceptive accident” as Health Canada calls it.  The pills have a higher dose of levonorgestrel compared to regular birth control pills and prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg.

But if the pill’s user weighs 165 to 176 pounds, its efficacy wanes. It’s virtually ineffective for women who weigh more than 176 pounds, Health Canada said. Read the full notice here.

Earlier this year, Ottawa said it was studying the effectiveness of the pill on the heels of reports that a French manufacturer, HRA Pharma, said its emergency contraception pill doesn’t work in women who weigh more than 176 pounds.

Dr. Oz’s weight loss claims investigated

Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, dubbed ‘America’s doctor,’ faced a grilling from U.S. senators in June about his weight-loss product claims.

Oz, the cardiothoracic-surgeon-turned-TV-personality, conceded that his language about certain supplements has been “flowery” but he promised he’ll improve on what he promotes to his followers. He told U.S. officials that he’ll publish a list of specific products he thinks will help consumers lose weight and get healthy.

READ MORE: Why Dr. Oz’s weight loss claims are being investigated

“I’ve used flowery language…which was meant to be helpful, but wound up being incendiary and provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers,” Oz said.

READ MORE: Dr. Oz scolded at hearing on weight loss scams

Oz said that he never endorsed specific companies or brands, but generally recommended some health supplements as weight-loss promoters.

“I get that you do a lot of good on your show. I understand that you give a lot of information that’s great information…you’re very talented and you’re obviously very bright,” Claire McCaskill, chair of the consumer protection panel, told Oz.

“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. When you have this amazing megaphone, why do you cheapen your show?” she asked.

PETA links milk to autism

Our parents fed it to us as kids by the carton-full. We were told it was good for our bones and our teeth. But in a cheeky ad released in May, animal rights group PETA linked milk to autism – and the backlash poured in from offended autism organizations and concerned doctors.

READ MORE: PETA links milk to autism in controversial new ad

“Got autism? Studies have shown a link between cow’s milk and autism,” the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals advertisement read.

The organization said it created this billboard to “alert the public” to what it alleges is a connection between autism spectrum disorder and dairy products.

“More research is needed but scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods,” PETA says on its website.

READ MORE: Anti-vaccination movement means preventable diseases making a comeback

It points to two scientific studies, but critics say the research is outdated, insufficient and with small sample groups.

“One, published in 2002, observed some possible improvement in autism symptoms when children were put on a diet free of gluten, gliadin and casein, proteins found either in grains or milk. Not only is the study old, it’s vague—with the researchers broadly blaming the problem on ‘processes with opioid effect,’ whatever that means,” according to one Time report.

A pediatrician told ABC News that the billboard is more a scare tactic than a public service announcement.

“I’m concerned more about the people who don’t have autism. They will be scared that they’ll get autism if they drink milk,” Dr. Susan McGrew said.

– With files from the Associated Press

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2014 Shaw Media

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