Top 10 Health Wins Of 2022

From the first malaria vaccine to a promising new Alzheimer’s drug, recall some of the biggest medical advances that occurred over the last 12 months.

female scientists looking into microscope

Medically reviewed in December 2022

Updated on December 19, 2022

As a new year approaches, it’s customary for many to look back, take note of the highs and the lows, and see how far we’ve come. COVID has dominated headlines for the past few years, but over the last 12 months there have been several other notable medical advances and milestones worth celebrating. Here is a recap of 10 of those health “wins” and why they are so important.

The world’s first malaria vaccine
For the first time in history, children across Africa will be vaccinated against malaria. A pilot program showed the vaccine, which has been in development since 1984, is safe, effective, and feasible. It is the only malaria vaccine to ever make it to late-stage clinical trials. About half of the world’s population is at risk for malaria, and Africa shoulders the heaviest burden of the illness. The infection, caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes, kills hundreds of thousands each year. Young children account for two-thirds of these deaths. In October 2021, The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended widespread, routine use of the vaccine in areas heavily affected by malaria. The decision has been heralded as a public health breakthrough that is predicted to save tens of thousands of lives each year. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom has called the vaccine a “gift to the world.”

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022  
On August 22, President Biden signed into law landmark legislation designed to help mitigate the effects of climate change, address the high cost of prescription drugs, enforce the tax code more fairly, and potentially lower the federal deficit by up to $305 billion through 2031. The legislation will have other near-term effects, including lowering prescription drug costs, providing free vaccines for adults on Medicaid, and lowering healthcare premiums for millions. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 also limits the price of insulin to no more than $35 per month in out-of-pocket costs for people with Medicare. Overall, it is the largest investment in energy security and climate action in American history, which comes as mounting research shows that slowing climate change can help safeguard human health.

A promising new Alzheimer’s drug
An effective therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than six million Americans, has eluded researchers for decades. Existing treatments can help manage symptoms, but a treatment regimen that targets the disease itself—slowing or stopping its progression—has been much harder to develop. In November 2022, results of a new study showed that an experimental drug called lecanemab could help clear beta-amyloid plaque—clumps of a toxic protein that accumulates in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease—and help stave off cognitive decline for those in the early-stages of the progressive disease. Lecanemab joins several other drugs in development for Alzheimer’s, including a nasal vaccine, which also targets beta-amyloid, that is currently being tested in a clinical trial. There is ongoing debate about whether beta-amyloid is really the driving factor behind Alzheimer’s, and much more research on the safety and potential risks associated with lecanemab is needed. But one researcher says the development “gives hope to the scientific community as well as patients living with dementia and their caregivers that we can fight this disease.” Lecanemab may receive accelerated approval by the FDA in January 2023, and full approval may come by the end of March.

Over-the-counter hearing aids
Of the 28.8 million Americans with hearing loss who would benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 16 percent of those aged 20 to 69 have ever tried using one. In August 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action to make hearing aids more affordable and more accessible, finalizing an historic rule that established a new category of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. By October, OTC hearing aids became available at stores across the country or online. Adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss can buy them at a lower cost without a prescription, medical exam, or an audiologist fitting. The move could have a dramatic impact on quality of life for many of those affected by hearing loss who may find it difficult to navigate a world that’s designed and optimized for people with normal hearing. The challenges that the hearing-enabled world can pose for people with deafness or hearing loss may even contribute to social isolation and an increased risk for depression.

Routine anxiety screening for adults
In a pioneering move, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says all adults younger than 65-years old—even those without symptoms—should undergo routine screening for anxiety in primary care. The independent panel of health experts issued the draft proposal in September, concluding that the potential benefits of screening outweigh any possible downside. The pandemic triggered a surge in anxiety and prevalence worldwide, according to a March 2022 scientific brief by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although a pre-pandemic feeling of normalcy has been largely restored, rates of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression are still higher than pre-pandemic levels. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, don’t hesitate to seek help. Effective treatments, including medication and talk or behavioral therapy, are available.

Possible explanation for SIDS deaths
Since 2016, parents have been advised by experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to adhere to certain safe sleeping guidelines to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), including placing babies on their backs to sleep, using firm mattresses, removing all bedding, pillows, and toys from their sleeping environments, not smoking in the home, and not co-sleeping with adults in bed. Since then, SIDS rates have been on a steady decline. But SIDS still accounts for 38.4 percent of all infant deaths in the United States. A groundbreaking June 2022 study published in eBioMedicine, however, may help healthcare providers identify at-risk infants. The study suggests that three factors underpin SIDS: a vulnerable infant, or a physiological cause, a critical time in development, and an external stressor, such as sleeping face down or living with smokers. The researchers found that activity levels of an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) were much lower in babies who died from SIDS, compared to healthy infants. This enzyme is involved in the regulation of sensory processing, attention, sleep, and arousal. The findings suggest that lower levels of BChE could be a potential biomarker for SIDS—the specific physical vulnerability that has long eluded doctors, researchers, and families seeking answers.

An experimental breast cancer vaccine    
Research on a first-of-its-kind vaccine that could prevent a deadly form of breast cancer is underway. It has already received FDA approval as an investigational new drug. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic in collaboration with the biotech company Anixa Biosciences, Inc. launched an early phase trial of the vaccine, which is designed teach the immune system to detect and destroy a triple-negative tumor as it’s beginning to form. It zeroes in on a protein called alpha-lactalbumin that is made by the breast during late pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and only reappears when developing breast cancer cells start pumping it out again. Initial results among triple negative breast cancer survivors at high risk for recurrence were so promising, the next phase of the trial, which includes healthy people who opted for a preventative double mastectomy due to high-risk genetic mutations, began ahead of schedule. Clinical trials could take years, but if the vaccine is successful, it could allow people at high risk for triple negative breast cancer to avoid preemptive removal of otherwise healthy breast tissue.

Progress toward an effective HIV vaccine
Scientists are working on an in innovative vaccine approach to prevent HIV. Results from a first-in-human early phase study showed that the vaccine—called IAVI G001—was safe and effectively triggered the desired immune response in 97 percent of people who received it. The vaccine approach is designed to stimulate rare, powerful antibodies known as broadly neutralizing antibodies that can target diverse strains of HIV. The fast mutation rate of the virus has long stymied past attempts at developing a badly needed vaccine. The vaccine approach, which is being developed by Scripps Research, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and other invetigators, may be used to develop an mRNA-based vaccine, which could significantly speed up its development. While rates of new HIV cases have been declining in past years, more than 30,000 people are still diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2020, more than 18,000 US adults diagnosed with HIV died. About 1.2 million people in the U.S. have HIV, and about 13 percent of them do not know they are positive for the virus. This novel vaccine approach could also be used to protect against other challenging viruses, like influenza, Zika, and hepatitis C. 

More evidence supporting the HPV vaccine
The first study based on real-world data has shown that the vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV) cut cases of cervical cancer by up to 87 percent. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, which can also cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and back of the throat.  About 85 percent of people will be infected with HPV in their lifetime. Each year, 36,500 people are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV. Despite screening, 11,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and 4000 women die from the disease. The CDC recommends two doses of HPV vaccine for all young people age 11 or 12 years, which can provide protection before being exposed to the virus. In 2021, only 61.7 percent of U.S. teens were up to date on HPV vaccination. The December 2021 study from the UK, which was published in the Lancet, showed the estimated risk of cervical cancer dropped by 97 percent for those who received the vaccine at 12 to 13 years of age, compared to unvaccinated people. If given at age 14 to 16 years, the estimated risk fell by 75 percent, and by 39 percent for those between 16 and 18 years old. 

A promising vaccine against tick-borne diseases
A new laboratory-stage vaccine developed at Yale shows promise for preventing Lyme disease and possible for other tick-borne illnesses. The vaccine uses the same mRNA technology that has been shown to be safe and effective against COVID. But instead of teaching the immune system to target the microbe, the vaccine stimulates an immune response in the skin against a protein in tick saliva. This response makes the site of the tick bite itchy, increasing the likelihood that it will be detected and removed before it’s able to transmit the virus. In a November 2021 study published in Science Translational Medicine, researchers tested the vaccine on guinea pigs. Results showed that when one infected tick was attached to immunized guinea pigs and not removed, none of them was infected. By comparison, 60 percent of the animals that were not vaccinated become infected. More research is needed to determine if this vaccine will help protect people. If so, it could have a dramatic benefit in areas of the U.S. where Lyme disease is more common, including the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Northwest. At least 35,000 cases are diagnosed each year, but the total number of infections could be much higher, according to the CDC. Most people diagnosed with Lyme disease are cured with oral antibiotics within two to four weeks, but some people develop lingering symptoms like pain, fatigue, and difficulty thinking.   

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