Top 10 Health Wins of 2023

From new RSV vaccines to progress against cancer, recall some of the biggest medical advances that occurred over the last 12 months.

a scientist looking into microscope

Updated on November 29, 2023.

As a new year approaches, it’s customary for many to look back and take note of the highs and lows over the past 12 months to see how far we’ve come. Sometimes challenges and disappointments can cast a shadow on positive developments. So, what went right this year? Here is a recap of 10 health “wins” and why they are so important.

The COVID public health emergency ended

In May 2023, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 is an established and ongoing health issue and no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). President Biden also officially rescinded the executive order that declared COVID-19 a public health emergency. In the U.S. alone, COVID claimed more than 1.1 million lives during the pandemic, nearly 6.5 million people were hospitalized, and more than 676 million COVID vaccines doses have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). After more than three years, the pandemic came to an end, but the virus is endemic (here to stay but contained and no longer spreading out of control). COVID vaccines remain free and available, and positive test results are still being monitored along with wastewater and the COVID viral genome.

Global childhood vaccinations began to rebound

Following worrisome setbacks during the COVID pandemic, routine childhood immunization rates are finally beginning to rebound. Though still below pre-pandemic levels (particularly in low-income countries), data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF released in July 2023 show four million more children were immunized in 2022 than the year before. Some 20.5 million children did not receive one or more diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP) vaccine (which are global benchmarks of immunization coverage) in 2022, compared to 24.4 million children in 2021. In the U.S., the CDC says routine vaccinations are rebounding though this progress has been uneven, or not consistent among all groups.

Awareness of the health effects of climate change increased

In 2023, the U.S. government expanded efforts to increase awareness and take action against the health effects of climate change. President Biden addressed the climate crisis and environmental justice in his Fiscal Year 2023 Budget by investing $16.7 billion more in these issues compared to 2021—an increase of almost 60 percent. These investments included increased funding to the CDC, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ newly created Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. They also included new programs to decrease the health impacts of environmental and air pollution in overburdened and marginalized communities. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also released a report estimating the health toll that climate change could take on U.S. children, who are among the most vulnerable to its effects. The report showed that global warming could result in up to 11 percent more cases of asthma, as much as a 272 percent spike in cases of Lyme disease, and a 7 percent drop in annual academic achievement per child as increased heat affects learning and concentration.

U.S. cancer mortality rates continued to decline

Major progress against common cancers continued in 2023, according to new estimates. Research shows that cancer deaths dropped dramatically over the past decade due to advances in treatment, early detection, and preventive measures. Overall death rates from cancer dropped by 33 percent between 1991 and 2020, translating into 3.8 million deaths averted, according to the 13th edition of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Progress Report released in September. The American Cancer Society (ACR) reported the same decline in cancer rates in its annual report released in February 2023. The ACR pointed to progress against some common forms of cancer. New cases of lung cancer continue to steadily decline, and deaths from the disease are decreasing at an even faster pace. Rates of new cases of cervical cancer have plummeted among women in their early 20s (the first group to have received the HPV vaccine, which can prevent cervical cancer). Deaths from breast cancer have also declined along with a decrease in new diagnoses and deaths from colon cancer (except for people younger than age 50, for whom diagnoses and deaths from colon cancer are rising for unknown reasons). Despite this progress, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the U.S., out-ranked only by heart disease. Prevention and early detection of the disease remain vital.

RSV vaccines became available for the first time

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus. Much like the flu, it’s highly contagious and most active in the fall, winter, and spring in the United States and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. For most otherwise healthy people, RSV typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms. But young children and older people are especially vulnerable to RSV-related complications, including bronchiolitis (inflammation of the lung’s small airways), pneumonia and respiratory failure. Each year in the United States, up to 80,000 children younger than 5 and up to 160,000 adults older than 65 are hospitalized due to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The highly contagious virus also claims up to 10,000 lives annually. In 2023, after decades of waiting, the first vaccines against RSV were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for older adults, pregnant people, and infants.

The first pill for postpartum depression was FDA-approved

Post-partum depression (PPD) is a potentially life-threatening condition that develops during or after about 15 percent of U.S. births. It can cause depressive symptoms such as sadness, guilt, worthlessness and thoughts of self-harm or hurting the newborn. The first oral pill for PPD was given priority review and approved by the FDA in August 2023. The new drug, known as Zurzuvae (zuranolone), was shown to be effective and fast-acting, with the potential to improve symptoms of PPD within a few days. Results from two clinical trials found that people with PPD who took zuranolone reported at least 50 percent improvement in their symptoms. Some experienced relief within three days. While not the first treatment for PPD, zulranone is the first oral pill for the condition, which makes it much more accessible to those who may benefit from it.

A new Alzheimer’s drug was also FDA-approved

More than six million U.S. adults are now living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number is expected to surge to 12.7 million, unless a breakthrough is made in the treatment or prevention of the disease. For decades, research into new drugs that could halt or slow the progression of the disease has met with disappointments. Existing treatments manage symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but do not target the disease process itself and help preserve brain cells. But in July 2023, the FDA granted full approval to a new Alzheimer’s drug called lecanemab (brand name Leqembi). Considered by some to be a possible game changer, lecanemab is one of the first experimental drugs to show potential for slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s-related cognitive decline. Results from clinical trials suggest lecanemab could possibly change the course of Alzheimer’s when started early on, but they are not without controversy. Critics say that the benefits of lecanemab may not outweigh its risks including high cost, possible safety concerns, and need to receive the medication intravenously. Still, the approval of lecanemab may offer hope that scientists will one day find an effective treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s.

Another first: an over-the-counter birth control pill got a green light

The FDA approved Opill (norgestrel) in July 2023—the first oral birth control pill that can be taken without a prescription. The oral contraceptive is expected to be available in stores and online beginning in early 2024. Because it is available over-the-counter (OTC), norgestrel may expand access to birth control, giving people more control over their reproductive health and family planning.  Sometimes referred to as a “mini” pill, norgestrel is a progestin-only daily pill that is expected to be more effective than available nonprescription contraceptive methods for preventing unintended pregnancy. This development comes amid a setback in the protection of reproductive rights in the U.S. In August 2023, a New Orleans-based federal appeals court upheld restrictions placed on access to the abortion pill mifepristone by ordering a ban on mail-orders and telemedicine prescriptions of the drug, which has been on the market for more than two decades. The ruling, however, will not take effect due to an emergency order from the U.S. Supreme Court, which temporarily paused the ruling, pending an appeal. So for now, the abortion pill remains available without restrictions.

The number of uninsured people in the U.S. hit a record low

The percentage of U.S. citizens without health insurance fell to a record low of 7.2 percent (23.7 million people) by June 2023, according to data from the National Health Interview Survey reported by the Office of Health Policy in November. Although large racial and ethnic disparities in coverage persist, research suggests that overall, rates of uninsurance have been on a steady decline from 10.3 percent in 2019 due to the Affordable Care Act and other policies designed to expand health insurance coverage.

A new antibiotic that holds promise against “superbugs” was discovered

Since the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, life expectancies worldwide have increased as the threat of bacterial infections diminished. Since then, however, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics have contributed to the ability of germs to develop resistance to them. Drug-resistant bacterial infections are an urgent global public health threat. In the U.S., more than 2.8 million “superbug” infections occur each year, claiming more than 35,000 lives in 2019 alone, according to the CDC. Part of the problem is that only about 1 percent of bacteria (from which antibiotics are developed) can be grown in a lab setting. Researchers in Germany and Boston, however, may have bypassed this issue. In August, the team of scientists revealed they discovered a potentially powerful new antibiotic known as clovibactin. Clovibactin was isolated from a bacterium that grows in sandy soil in North Carolina. To grow the bacteria, the scientists developed a device called iChip, which cultures it within its soil environment. The researchers found that clovibactin may kill a broad spectrum of bacteria, including the superbug Staphylococcus aureus in infected lab mice. More research is needed to determine if it’s safe and effective in treating bacterial infections in people.  

Article sources open article sources

World Health Organization. Statement on the fifteenth meeting of the IHR (2005) Emergency Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic. May 5, 2023.
The White House. FACT SHEET: Actions Taken by the Biden-Harris Administration to Ensure Continued COVID-19 Precautions and Surge Preparedness After Public Health Emergency Transition. May 9, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker. Accessed November 29, 2023.
American Lung Association. Epidemic, Pandemic and Endemic: What's the Difference? January 21, 2022.
University of Minnesota. CIDRAP. Global Childhood vaccination rates increase, but not to prepandemic levels. November 2, 2023.
World Health Organization. Global immunisation rates show sign of post-pandemic rebound. July 17, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Routine Immunizations on Schedule for Everyone (RISE). Last reviewed October 5, 2023.
Kaur G, Danovaro-Holliday MC, Mwinnyaa G, et al. Routine Vaccination Coverage - Worldwide, 2022. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2023 Oct 27;72(43):1155-1161.
The White House. President Biden's FY 2023 Budget Reduces Energy Costs, Combats the Climate Crisis, and Advances Environmental Justice. March 28, 2022.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change and Children's Health and Well-Being in the United States. April 2023.
American Association for Cancer Research. Cancer in 2023. Accessed November 29, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Cancer Statistics: Data Visualizations. Accessed November 29, 2023.
American Lung Association. Lung Cancer Trends: Prevalence and Incidence. Accessed November 29, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disparities in Breast Cancer Deaths. Last reviewed October 18, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer. Last reviewed January 13, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leading Causes of Death. Last reviewed January 18, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV). Last reviewed July 17, 2023.
National Center for Health Statistics. Health Insurance Coverage: Early Release of Quarterly Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, April 2022-June 2023. Accessed November 21, 2023.
Office of Health Policy. National Uninsured Rate Remained Unchanged in the Second Quarter of 2023. November 2023.
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. National Uninsured Rate Reaches an All-Time Low in Early 2023. August 3, 2023.
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