Year in review: 7 health and nutrition stories of 2014

In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 file photo, a healthcare worker dons protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 file photo, a healthcare worker dons protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. AP Photo/Michael Duff, File

PARIS – Ebola, enterovirus, epidemics of measles and whooping cough. A comedian’s death shone a light on mental health, one woman took assisted suicide into her own hands, and people around the world dumped buckets of ice cold water on their heads for ALS.

Health news in 2014 took a dark turn, as both sombre and hot-button issues surfaced. Global News health reporter Carmen Chai takes a look at 10 of the biggest health and nutrition stories of the year.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa: Hands down, the world’s largest Ebola outbreak in history is the biggest health story of the year. It’s the first time in 20 years the virus has been reported in West Africa – now the deadly disease has claimed more than 6,800 lives with another 18,400 cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Dozens of stories – contentious issues, health care failures, stories of heroism and heartbreak – emerged from the outbreak that reverberated throughout the world.

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READ MORE: How Canadian docs are fighting Ebola during the world’s worst outbreak

The instances that pulled on your heartstrings: U.S. missionary Dr. Kent Brantly became one of the first missionaries to contract Ebola while caring for patients in Liberia. While in dire condition, he gave the single vial of experimental serum to his colleague who also tested positive for Ebola. In a candid interview, he talked about coming to grips with death and understanding the plight of his patients as he sat in a hospital bed surrounded by faceless doctors dressed in full protective gear.

The cracks in the system: By September, North America saw its first case of Ebola on U.S. soil – a Liberian native, Thomas Eric Duncan, turned up in a Texas emergency room complaining of a fever and nausea. He was sent home with a prescription for antibiotics, only to return to hospital in a worse state five days later. Ultimately, Duncan died and in his wake, two nurses also contracted the deadly disease.

The controversial issues: Where do we start? A handful of U.S. states created a three-week mandatory hospital quarantine for missionaries returning from West Africa.  In late October, Canada and Australia became the first Western nations to stop accepting visa applications coming from West Africa. With a limited quantity of experimental therapies, questions swirled about who should be first to receive treatment.

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Robin Williams and mental health: He was an actor and comedian who entertained people around the world for decades but 63-year-old Robin Williams died in mid-August in an apparent suicide.

It’s likely fans remember where they were when they heard the tragic news. As the details surfaced, they took to social media to share their sadness and disbelief, triggering an important discussion about mental health and depression.

READ MORE: Robin Williams and mental health – Misconceptions about depression

Russell Brand, a fellow comedian who also openly shared his bouts with addiction and depression, penned an eloquent tribute:

“Poor Robin Williams, briefly enduring that lonely moment of morbid certainty where it didn’t matter how funny he was or who loved him or how many lachrymose obituaries would be written,” Brand wrote.

“Robin Williams could have tapped anyone in the western world on the shoulder and told them he felt down and they would have told him not to worry, that he was great, that they loved him. He must have known that. He must have known his wife and kids loved him, that his mates all thought he was great, that millions of strangers the world over held him in their hearts, a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world. Today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.”

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Enterovirus strikes in late August: Just as kids were getting ready to go back to school, a mysterious respiratory virus sent toddlers to hospital emergency rooms.

Pediatricians recounted to Global News what they saw in slammed intensive care units – toddlers who were coughing, wheezing, unable to even say a sentence without gasping for air.

READ MORE: Everything parents need to know about enterovirus symptoms and treatment

In August, Dr. Mary Anne Jackson knew that the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City – one of the first sites to document enterovirus cases – had an unusual disease on its hands.

“I’ve certainly seen outbreaks in our community and tracked a variety of outbreaks, but what caught our attention from the beginning was the severity of illness,” Jackson, the hospital’s director of infectious diseases, told Global News.

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The rare disease made its way through at least 12 U.S. states, with confirmed cases in a handful of Canadian provinces.

The WHO drops the gauntlet on sugar: Chocoholics and the fast food industry were silenced in March after the World Health Organization said that sugar intake should be just five per cent of your total daily calories. That’s half of what the global health agency recommended years ago in its guidelines.

For an average woman who eats about 2,000 calories a day, that’s roughly 25 grams of sugar – less than half of a can of pop, about two portions of yogurt or an entire Caramilk bar.

READ MORE: How much sugar should you be eating? How to follow WHO’s guidelines

The WHO says it hopes its recommendations make consumers cognizant that the food they may be eating isn’t fuel, but empty calories. So if your morning meal is a latte and a muffin, that’s more for feeding your growing waistline than your energy.

The Ice Bucket Challenge and ALS: What do Justin Bieber, your next door neighbour and everybody else on your Facebook have in common? Over the summer, they all filled a bucket with ice cold water and dumped it over their heads in the name of ALS.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease – received a hefty bump in funding after the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral.

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READ MORE: What is ALS? The disease behind the ice bucket challenge

The trend of nominating friends, donating cash and then dumping the bucket of water over your head began with celebrities – the likes of  Leonardo Di CaprioGeorge W. Bush, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and Jimmy Fallon – and then trickled into the general public.

ALS Canada said it raised over $16 million. And in the U.S., over $100 million was donated to the American ALS Association – that’s four times what the organization raised in 2013, according to reports.

One terminally ill woman’s planned assisted suicide makes waves worldwide: As governments debated euthanasia this year, California woman Brittany Maynard took her fate into her own hands after she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

By April, the 29-year-old newlywed was told she had six months to live, but that her final days would be painful. That’s when Maynard’s husband and her parents moved from their San Francisco home to Oregon, one of five states that have passed the Death with Dignity Act.

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READ MORE: Brittany Maynard, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, ends her life

There — along with Montana, Vermont, New Mexico and Washington — terminally ill people can end their lives through self-administered lethal medications that are prescribed by a doctor.

She scheduled her death for Nov. 1, shortly after her husband’s birthday. On Nov. 3, she died.

“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more. The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type … Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!”

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Help for first responders, veterans: Twenty-three first responders across Canada – police officers, firefighters, paramedics, soldiers and corrections officers – have killed themselves since April, according to a foundation that’s made its mission to work with emergency personnel around mental health.

In interviews with Global News, former frontline workers  shared their stories of coming across violence, substance abuse, and severe health emergencies on a day-to-day basis.

“You have to go into situations that often times are some of the worst days of the individuals we’re treating. [First responders] are asked to do this daily, it can’t help but affect you over time,” Jim Harris, a former paramedic who now manages a paramedic training program, told Global News.

READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

In Global’s Invisible Wounds series, we spoke with five current and former members of the Canadian Forces, each with post-traumatic stress disorder.

They described debilitating injuries and difficulty in getting treatment, either initially or long-term. Some soldiers said stigma was to blame, while others blamed systemic dysfunction in the military. Doctors blamed the media and military culture.

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– With files from Global reporters Ashley Terry, James Armstrong, Adam Frisk, Justin McElroy, and the Associated Press’ Candice Choi