Health stories that made headlines in Alberta in 2015

EDMONTON — From an alarming number of fentanyl-related deaths to a rare disorder which causes rapid weight gain in children, here are the top health-related stories that spurred conversations among Albertans in 2015.

Alarming number of fentanyl deaths

Several Alberta families came forward this year as an alarming trend spread across the province. As of Sept. 30, 213 Albertans died due to fentanyl overdoses.

One of those Albertans was 19-year-old Rory McCann from Calgary. His parents spoke to Global News in February, motivated by their son’s death to help educate and treat people who are using the deadly drug, which is often times mixed with other drugs.

“We believe he thought he was getting Oxy when he took the drug,” said Sparla McCann, Rory’s mom. “It’s absolutely devastating and I want him back and I just think it’s a senseless way to go.”

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READ MORE: Teen’s fentanyl overdose highlights troubling trend in Alberta

The rising number of deaths prompted the province to increase access to naloxone, an antidote which works by competing with fentanyl for the same opiate receptors in the body, decreasing the potency of the drug.

Deadly flu season

The 2014-2015 flu season was one of the deadliest Alberta has seen in nearly 20 years.

By May 2015, 103 Albertans had died of the flu, according to Alberta Health Services. Dr. Joanna Oda, a medical officer of health with AHS, said there were a couple possible reasons for the increase in deaths, one being that the dominant strain of influenza A that circulated was H3N2.

READ MORE: Alberta’s flu-related deaths surpass 100 this season

The other reason, according to Oda, is that the flu vaccine was less effective.

Code Red

In January 2015, paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians in Alberta voiced their frustrations about working on the front line.

Desperate for change, the first responders spoke out about increasing response times and getting tied up at hospitals.

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“I’m here to tell you that there’s an awful lot of calls that happen in this province where patients wait an inordinate length of time for an ambulance to show up. And there’s been times where they haven’t shown up at all,” George Porter, a paramedic with 40 years experience told Global News in January.

“On multiple occasions, I’ve been the only ambulance available in a 100 kilometre radius,” added a rural Alberta EMT who asked his name not be published.

Just earlier this month, for the first time since taking over ambulance services from municipalities in 2009, Alberta Health Services set new response time benchmarks.

READ MORE: AHS sets new 12-minute ambulance response time targets

Under the new AHS EMS Performance Dashboard, a 90th percentile target of 12 minutes has been set for ambulances to respond to calls within the province’s urban areas.

Watch below: Global’s three-part Code Red series 

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Cancer control

There was some good health news to hit Alberta in 2015, when it comes to cancer control.

The provincial government promised Calgary a new, one-stop cancer centre. And the University of Alberta assembled a new research team to target cancer cells with a patient’s own immune system.

READ MORE: Edmonton partnership hopes to develop ‘magic drug’ for cancer patients

Menthol and flavoured tobacco banned

A ban on flavoured tobacco came into effect on June 1, 2015. Three months later, menthol was also added to that ban. While the move was welcomed by health agencies across the country, it was not well-received by some in the tobacco business, including some small business owners worried about their bottom lines.

“It’s going to have a lot of impact – the same as the flavour ban did,” said Brian Eakett, owner of Green’s Pop Shop in Lethbridge. “People are already making changes and turning to mild smokes. If the government thinks people are going to quit smoking, then they are not as smart as I think they are.”

READ MORE: Alberta ban on menthol cigarettes comes into effect

Break through in diabetes research

There was a breakthrough in diabetes research in 2015. The University of Alberta’s Dr. James Shapiro is leading the world’s first human trial of a device that could potentially transform the lives of people with Type 1 diabetes.

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A product candidate called VC-01, containing progenitor pancreatic cells, are being implanted into participants with Type 1 diabetes. The hope is that this cell therapy could one day eliminate the need for insulin injections, by producing insulin themselves.

Watch below: Cure for diabetes could lie in tiny device

Edmonton mother searches for stem cell donor

The story of Tammy McLash, an Edmonton mother desperately searching for a stem cell donor, made national headlines earlier this year.

The mother of twin toddlers came down with a terrible infection and was forced to spend a month in isolation, separated from her husband and children.

McLash, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2014, found a match in January. Her search resulted in thousands of Canadians signing up to become stem cell donors.

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READ MORE: Now home and healthy, Alberta family reflects on ‘darkest time’ of their life

Alberta boy lives with rare disorder which causes him to gain weight

At four years old, Jaxon Garnier weighs over 80 pounds, which is about double the weight of an average boy his age. Due to a rare condition called ROHHAD, Jaxon’s brain tells him he’s constantly hungry, so he’s constantly looking for food.

There have only been about a dozen cases of ROHHAD diagnosed in Canada, five of them in Edmonton.

Watch below: Rare condition causes rapid weight gain in children

Which was your most memorable health story of 2015? Have your say in our poll below. If your favourite health story of the year isn’t on the list, leave it in the comments section below.

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With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News. 


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