2018 has been something of a landmark year for the introduction of new laws, campaigns and guidelines, all intended to help improve the UK’s health and promote well-being. We’ve also seen some dramatic extremes in weather, as well as a number of notable developments in medicine.

As an eventful 2018 draws to a close, here’s a recap of the some of the biggest health stories to hit the headlines in the last 12 months.

January

Waitrose started the new year by announcing their plan to ban the sale of energy drinks to those under the age of 16 years. Soft drinks with over 150mg per litre of caffeine, which are already labelled as ‘not suitable for children’ under EU law, will require proof of age. The new steps came into play in Waitrose shops in March 2018.

January also saw the release of the #vegpower campaign on Twitter. Backed by numerous celebrity chefs, including seasoned campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it set out to encourage the UK general public to eat more vegetables. The campaign has recently secured £2m worth of free advertising on the ITV network to help widen the appeal of vegetables.

February

The British winter can be bitterly cold but February 2018 saw a particularly extreme cold snap. The media-dubbed ‘Siberian blast’ hit the country hard. Heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures caused rail disruption, blizzard conditions and a ‘snow emergency’ to be declared in Kent. We took a look at what happens to the body when exposed to freezing temperatures.

March

In March Public Health England (PHE) released their report on the impact of obesity. Drawing from the report the national health body unveiled details of its new 400/600/600 diet scheme. The diet released under the ‘One You’ campaign encourages the general public to aim for 400 calories at breakfast, 600 calories at lunch and another 600 calories at dinner time. This comes as adults have been found to regularly consume between 200 and 300 calories more than recommended guidelines. Whilst PHE wants the public to take further responsibility for their own weight and health, they also want the food industry to address portion sizes and calorie content in some products.

March was the month where Viagra Connect became available to purchase over-the-counter as a pharmacy-line medicine. Patients are still required to have a brief consultation with a trained pharmacist, but the bold step has opened up accessibility of erectile dysfunction medication to men who might not have sought out help in the past. Viagra Connect is a 50mg tablet and is essentially the same as a 50mg Viagra tablet only the branding and prescribing guidelines are different.

April

April saw the introduction of the soft drinks sugar tax. Manufacturers now have to pay a levy on the high sugar drinks that they sell. Drinks containing 8g of sugar per 100ml now have a tax rate equivalent to 24p per litre. In response, several leading drinks brands have reformulated their drinks so that they contain less sugar in order to avoid the tax. In England the income from the new tax is being used to help fund school sports clubs and other activities.

May

In May the UK was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Europe’s highest court, for failure to tackle illegal levels of air pollution. According to European Commission, the UK had failed to take steps to reduce the amount of nitrogen dioxide polluting the air, particularly in urban areas. It means that levels of the harmful substance have been in breach of legal limits since 2010.

Five other countries were also referred to the ECJ (France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania), whilst Slovakia, Czech Republic and Spain all made improvements following on from their final warning in January. Vehicle emissions, in particular those from diesel cars, are one of main sources of nitrogen dioxide which has led several local authorities to take a stance against unnecessary idling vehicles.

June

Football fans across the globe were treated to some exciting matches at the Russia World Cup which started in June. We staged our own tournament of national dishes from participating countries, to examine the nutritional differences between some of the world’s best loved cuisines.

Public Health England released the latest STI statistics for 2017. Overall the total number of diagnoses remained close to the previous year, although a marked increase in diagnoses of gonorrhoea and syphilis caught the media’s attention. Drug-resistant strains of gonorrhoea have been diagnosed in the UK and it has been identified as a potential public health issue. Syphilis is still a fairly rare STI but its resurgence is puzzling sexual health specialists, as it was all but eradicated in the 1980s.

PHE also released the results of a survey that found 31% of women to have experienced severe reproductive health problems in the past 12 months. The problems ranged from severe menstrual bleeding to menopause and infertility to incontinence. The data is being used to support a move to reposition reproductive health as a public health concern that needs addressing.

July

A sweltering heatwave hit the UK in July making it the joint hottest summer on record. The hot days also contributed to record numbers of people attending A+E departments across the country. There were reports of an increase in patients being seen for dehydration, heart problems and kidney failure thought to be related to the high temperatures. We reminded our readers to take precautions when enjoying the sunshine with our sun exposure infographic.

July also saw the government announce its plan to teach children about good mental health, in draft guidance that will become compulsory by September 2020. The decision was in part influenced by a petition calling for mental health to form part of the education programme, due to a significant increase in the number of young people being treated for self harm.

August

In August the Scottish government pledged to take steps to end period poverty by investing £5.2m into schemes to provide free menstrual products in schools, colleges and universities. The decision makes the Scottish government the first in the world to do so. The results of an online survey found that thousands of young girls in the UK are missing school due to not being able to afford menstrual products, demonstrating how widespread the problem is.

September

The worldwide EpiPen shortage has been a worrying topic for those with severe allergies throughout 2018. The lifesaving devices are used by those with serious allergies in instances where they are suffering an anaphylactic shock. In September the MHRA granted the manufacturer Myla’s request to extend the expiry date on certain batches of the adrenaline autoinjector device. This decision has since been extended to cover some Jext devices too.

October

Levitra is a branded erectile dysfunction drug but its patent expired on 31st October 2018. This has opened the door for generic tablets using the active ingredient vardenafil to come to the market. Vardenafil works in a similar way to the active ingredient sildenafil, used in Viagra, by helping to improve blood flow into the penis.

November

As we reported last month, the American National Institutes of Health announced their plans for a clinical study into a male contraceptive gel, known as NES/T. The extensive human trial could hold the key to finally broadening the options when it comes male contraceptives.

NHS England announced that all clinical commissioning groups should provide all suitable type-1 diabetes patients with access to ‘flash’ glucose monitoring testing. The wearable monitor allows diabetics to check their glucose levels without the need for a painful or inconvenient finger prick blood test. Diabetics must regularly check their glucose levels to see how much medication they need or what they should eat. The FreeStyle Libre device, reportedly used by the Prime Minister Theresa May, has been available for some time but CCGs have seemed reluctant to provide it to patients, potentially due to funding.

Since 1st November specialist doctors have been able to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients. The new NHS guidance says that the treatment should only be considered where other options have been exhausted. The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made the decision to change the regulations surrounding medical cannabis following the high profile cases of two young children with epilepsy. The Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies conducted a review and found the treatment to offer some therapeutic benefits.

December

On Thursday 6th December the government published details of their plan to reform the mental health act. This follows on from several recommendations made by the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act 1983. An official response will be created before changes to legislation are prepared.