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The 10 Lowest Health Moments of 2016

All the bad news you'll need to be the savviest Debbie Downer at the cocktail party.

Margot Bigg

Image: John Sciulli / Stringer / Getty

It's news to no one that 2016 has been pretty horrific. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives unnecessarily in conflicts across Africa and the Middle East, the North Pole is melting off the face of the planet, the US had a joke of an election, and at least three of the world's most innovative and beloved musical poets have abandoned this disintegrating world. 

On the public health front, things haven't been any better. As we wrap up the disaster that was this year, let's wallow in the horror one last time before we try to put it behind us.

Women's reproductive rights took a major hit
Trump's election, coupled with a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, an empty seat in the Supreme Court, plus some aging judges, have many fearful that Roe v. Wade stands to be overturned. On the state level, Texas recently passed legislation requiring clinics to cremate or bury fetuses or fetal tissues in the case of miscarriage or abortion irrespective of the mother's wishes. In Ohio, a bill criminalizing abortion after the six-week gestational marker was recently passed through congress. While Governor John Kasich vetoed it, the new regulations prohibit abortion after 20 weeks, with no exceptions. 

Tom Price got tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services
The living embodiment of regressive healthcare policies, Georgia Representative Tom Price has been selected by the Trump camp to lead the US Department of Health and Human Services come January. Price not only has a long and sordid record of fighting against LGBTQ equality and women's reproductive rights, but he's also an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act (and ACA provisions for birth control). He also wants to privatize Medicare, which could potentially wreak havoc for America's rapidly growing population of people 65 and over. 

Prince overdosed and America's opiate problem soared
Many people will remember 2016 for the people we lost, and while the demise of the likes of David Bowie and Leonhard Cohen caused fans to mourn around the world, many found the sudden passing of Prince to be a bigger shocker, not only because the artist was only 57, but also because his death was confirmed to be the result of an accidental overdose of the powerful opioid fentanyl. For many Americans, Prince's overdose hit close to home—it's estimated that around 2 million people in the US are addicted to prescription opiates, and more than a third of overdose deaths in 2015 involved prescription pain medicine.  

There was a global increase in suicide
According to the WHO, around 800,000 people die from suicide every year. A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted a 24 percent increase in suicide from 1999 through 2014 in the United States, with notable increases among girls aged 10 to 14 and men 45 to 64. Worldwide, suicide rates have increased by around 60 percent in the past 45 years, according to the WHO. Suicide rates are even higher in the developing world; the WHO estimates that around three quarters of suicides took place in countries with low to medium incomes. 

Syrian refugees' health suffered horribly
As of late 2016, the public health situation in Syria, particularly Aleppo, is dire. Most hospitals in the eastern part of the city are either closed or barely operational, while those in the western reaches are overburdened. The WHO estimates that as of early December, around 250,000 people had inadequate access to food, water, and medicine. Outside of Syria, many refugees have ended up in basic camps with limited access to shelter or clean drinking water. Doctors Without Borders has reported high incidence of acute respiratory tract infections and skin disease. The trauma of the war has also left many refugees with serious mental health needs, and children are particularly vulnerable.

The Flint water crisis happened
In 2014, the small Michigan city of Flint transitioned their water source from the Detroit Water Authority to the Flint Water System. Due to a lack of corrosion control systems, the municipal tap water soon became contaminated with dangerous levels of lead, a known neurotoxin that can permanently affect children's cognitive abilities. And though Flint soon switched its source back to Detroit, the impact of the crisis continues to this day; in July of this year, the CDC released findings showing that the water crisis caused a sharp upturn in blood lead levels among the children of Flint.

STDs hit an all-time high in the US
STDs are on the rise in the United States, and about half of new reported cases occur in patients 15 to 24. While some might attribute the spike to the sexual coming-of-age of a generation who no longer view HIV as a death sentence, the CDC points out that nationwide budget cuts affecting state and local STD treatment programs are a big part of the problem. Syphilis in particular is making a big comeback, with a 19 percent increase in incidence in 2015 over 2014.

Toxic air pollution swelled around the world
Pollution peaked to alarming heights this year everywhere from Paris to Riyadh. According to the WHO, more than 80 percent of those living in cities where air pollution is monitored are exposed to unsafe levels. India was hit particularly hard: In New Delhi, a sharp increase in cars on the roads coupled with industrial activity, the heavy use of fireworks during the annual Diwalicelebrations, and widespread slash-and-burn agricultural practices in the surrounding regions have resulted in toxic—and potentially life-threatening—pollution levels. 

El Niño caused an agriculture crisis
For people living in agriculture-dependent equatorial and southern regions, El Niño plays a huge role in food security. The 2015-2016 cycle was no exception, and its effects have been particularly hard-hitting in Southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia and Polynesia. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 60 million people have been or will be negatively impacted by the meteorological phenomenon and its subsequent crop failures and livestock deaths.

Zika scared the shit out of everyone, and yellow fever should have 
The mosquito-borne Zika virus was among the most talked-about public health concerns of the year, owing largely to the fact that the virus can have devastating effects on developing fetuses. Travel advisories were issued urging pregnant women to avoid areas where the virus was at its most prevalent (notably Central America and the Caribbean), but Zika nevertheless made its way to US shores. On a slightly more upbeat note, many in the scientific community believe that the Zika epidemic is on the decline (the WHO declared it was no longer an emergency in 2017).  
Yellow Fever also made a comeback in 2016, particularly in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. Despite being easily preventable through vaccination, this painful, mosquito-borne hemorrhagic disease causes tens of thousands of deaths per year, but as is the case with Zika, the situation currently seems to be under control (the last confirmed cases in Angola and the DRC were in June and July, respectively). At least we can say that about something.