By Brenda Goodman
WebMD Health News
Infections, the things that spread them, and sad and surprising celebrity diagnoses were among the main reasons readers turned to WebMD for information this year.
Here is a look at the WebMD users’ top health searches for 2015.
When measles struck Southern California in the winter of 2014-2015, people followed the outbreak closely as case counts continued to climb, especially in states that had made it easier for parents to opt out of vaccines for kids.
Ultimately, 113 people got sick in that outbreak, which was thought to have started at the Disneyland theme park.
The outbreak led to an unprecedented backlash against parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. It also prompted California to trade its lenient vaccine requirements for one of the toughest school vaccination laws in the country.
Flu and Flu Vaccine
A barely effective vaccine led to more misery than usual during the 2014-2015 flu season.
The recipe for the flu shot changes every year, as experts try to predict which strains of the virus will circulate through the winter and spring.
So far, according to the CDC, the strains in this year’s vaccine are good matches for the viruses that are infecting people in North America.
Celebrity health announcements often drive a huge increase in public awareness about a disease or condition.
There are early signs that Charlie Sheen’s recent announcement that he has HIV is having a similar impact on awareness of the virus and testing for it. The company STDcheck.com, where people can order their own lab tests for sexually transmitted diseases, said it saw a near 70% increase in sales the day Sheen spoke out.
Most of those orders came from Los Angeles and the surrounding area, the company reported.
In the same vein, curiosity about lupus—a relatively uncommon autoimmune disease—surged in October after Selena Gomez revealed her struggles with it in an interview for Billboard magazine.
The singer explained that she’d been treated with chemotherapy. A lupus expert told us that chemotherapy is typically used to treat advanced disease.
Ticks and Mosquitos
Eager to avoid tick-borne ailments like Lyme disease and the newly identified Powassan virus, people searched for information about how to prevent tick bites, how to safely remove these pests and when to call the doctor after you’re bitten by one.
Mosquitos, which pass viruses like West Nile and dengue to people, were another top search term this year, especially for people who were considering travel to parts of the world where these bloodsuckers are a bigger menace.
Caitlyn Jenner brought new awareness and compassion for gender identity issues. Searches for the term transgender spiked by 1,750% this summer after her announcement that she was fulfilling a lifelong desire to transition from a male to a female body.
Her announcement came at a time when clinics that treat transgender children were reporting significant increases in the number of families seeking help for children who question their genders.
Lewy Body Dementia
Readers wanted to find out more about this lesser-known form of dementia after Robin Williams’ widow spoke out about it this year. A pathology report done after the actor and comedian committed suicide in 2014 revealed that he had the disease.
In addition to memory loss and thinking problems, Lewy body dementia can cause hallucinations. It is commonly mistaken for other diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The worst outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York’s history killed 12 people and sickened more than 120 over the summer.
The disease is caused by a bacteria that grows best in fresh, warm water environments like hot tubs and the cooling towers used to air condition large buildings. Investigators discovered that cooling towers were behind the New York outbreak.
People catch the disease when they breathe in tiny droplets of contaminated water.
In the wake of the outbreak, the city passed a new law that requires building owners to regularly inspect cooling towers and disinfect them if tests show dangerous levels of bacteria.
This is short for respiratory syncytial virus, and it’s the most common respiratory illness in infants. It follows a seasonal pattern, with cases spiking during the colder months of the year.
It’s scary for parents since there’s no vaccine to prevent it, though several are in development. There is a medication some doctors use to help prevent RSV in babies and young children at higher risk.
Each year, the virus sends more than 50,000 children under 5 to the hospital, according to the CDC.
What Were Doctors Reading?
For the most part, doctors and other health care professionals on our sister site, Medscape, were interested in many of the same health topics as those of us without medical degrees. Among its top search terms were measles, influenza, and gender identity.
One of the top searchers for physicians, new mammogram guidelines, deals with an issue that affects about half of all women who get screened for breast cancer — dense breasts.
About 22 states have now passed laws that require doctors to notify women with breasts that appear to be “dense” on screening mammograms that other imaging tests like ultrasounds and MRIs are also available. Some states also require insurance companies to pay for these additional tests. Women with dense breast tissue have about double the risk of getting cancer.
But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force – an influential panel of experts that reviews research on screening and preventive care–looked at the available scientific evidence and found some problems. There’s no standard definition of breast density. And for many women, this changes over time. And while additional imaging tests do find more cancer, they also result in more faulty results called false positives and unnecessary biopsies. In the end, the task force concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to recommend additional imaging for women with dense breasts.