America's Top 5 Health Threats in 2014

According to the World Health Organization, as of 2011 there were 12,420 different diseases, disorders, and ailments that can afflict the human body. This cornucopia of diseases and disorders ranges from more of the nuisance variety to life-threatening illnesses. You might say that it's a darn good thing our bodies are geared to protect us day in and day out, or we'd really be in trouble.

In addition to the Food and Drug Administration which regulates the drug and medical device development process and the safety and usage of approved drugs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention handles citizens' disease education and awareness. You might refer to the CDC as the goal-setting agency of the health-care industry that focuses biopharmaceutical and medical-device companies toward the hot-button disease issues.

The nation's top five health threats
Every year the CDC comes out with a list of the most prized health-care accomplishments in the previous year as well as lists the top five health threats in the current year. Today, we're going to look at those top five threats addressed by the CDC and point out what's currently being done to abate them.

No. 1: Antibiotic resistance and advanced molecular detection
Topping the list of CDC concerns is a rise in antibiotic-resistant germs. As the CDC notes, some 2 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections annually that result in approximately 23,000 deaths. The primary focuses of the CDC here is to work with federal, state, and local governments to reduce the unnecessary usage of antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant germs, as well as improving advanced molecular detection of these drug-resistant infections to abate the potential for diseases to spread.


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the CDC noted in its first-ever drug-resistance report released in 2013 (link opens a PDF), significant gaps in knowledge exist with regard to antibiotic resistance. Routine antibiotic data usage isn't reported by the health or agricultural industries, and there's no systemic international surveillance that can detect antibiotic resistance threats, to name a few of the CDC's concerns. Ultimately, this means the drug development process for even basic vaccines still goes on.

A good example here of this ongoing diligence from researchers is Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , which on the last day of 2012 had the FDA approve its multi-drug-resistance tuberculosis therapy Sirturo. Tuberculosis is among the world's deadliest diseases, and although most infected patients are able to successfully be treated with isoniazid and rifampin, Sirturo serves as a perfect reminder that instances of drug resistance do occur and the need to constantly innovate is crucial for biopharma companies and the health of people worldwide.

No. 2: Prescription drug abuse and overdose
Based on data from the CDC's top threats, more than 16,500 people died from painkiller overdoses in 2010. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 6 million people abused controlled prescription drugs -- predominantly opioid-based painkillers -- over the past year.

There are a number of ways that CPD abuse is currently being fought. First, the CDC is attempting to increase public awareness about the dangers of misusing prescription medicines in an effort to curb the potential for overdoses. Second, the CDC is relying on law enforcement agencies around the country to crackdown on CPD abuse. That same NDTS report notes that the high availability of CPDs has increase from just 41% in 2007 to more than 75% in 2013.


Source: DEA, National Drug Threat Survey 2007-2011, 2013. 

Perhaps the best way to combat a pharmacological problem, though, is with "smarter" medicines. A handful of companies, including Acura Pharmaceuticals and DURECT (NASDAQ: DRRX  ) , are developing drugs that are resistant to tampering, and in many cases make it impossible for the user to turn into an illicit narcotic. Of course, developing drug-abuse-resistant technology isn't exactly a walk in the park. DURECT, for instance, had Posidur, its surgical site painkiller, rejected by the FDA earlier this week, and it hasn't had any luck along with development partners Pfizer and Pain Therapeutics in getting Remoxy approved. It's a long but intriguing road ahead for this niche sector.

No. 3: Global health security
We've marveled at the potential of a disease outbreak in a number of highly acclaimed movies, including Outbreak and Contagion, but the fact remains that disease suppression and quarantine is incredibly difficult given the globalization of world economies and easier access to transportation via airplanes to nearly anywhere in the world. The CDC, therefore, sees securing our borders against a potentially serious disease as one of its primary focuses in 2014.

Similar to curbing antibiotic resistance, the CDC anticipates working closely with federal, state, and local regulators, as well as the Ministries of Health, to increase their ability to prepare for a disease outbreak and improve their response methods. One primary target will be common overseas destinations which the CDC will strongly encourage to build or improve their infectious disease detection methods. By curbing suppression outside our borders the CDC believes it can stem a vast majority of infections from entering this country.

No. 4: HPV (human papillomavirus)
The human papillomavirus is a virus that can lead to cervical cancers in women, as well as genital warts and various other cancer types, including cancer of the anus, vagina, and vulva. The CDC recommends that preteens, aged 11-12, get vaccinated against HPV. The reasoning this age is chosen is that it gives time for a teen's immune system to develop an immune response to HPV before they become sexually active years later, when the HPV virus can be spread easily.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the CDC notes, HPV vaccine rates are currently running well short of its global goal for 2020, meaning it anticipates going on the offensive with regard to improving education and awareness throughout the country.

Two of the prime beneficiaries of improved HPV vaccine awareness would be Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) , which developed Gardasil, and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK  ) , the company behind Cervarix. Both Cervarix and Gardisil are given to women, while Gardisil alone is administered to men. While these vaccines don't offer fool-proof protection against HPV, the CDC notes it offers teens and young adults their best chance at preventing select types of cancer. Therefore, any improvement in HPV vaccine rates would be reflected directly on Merck and GlaxoSmithKline's top- and bottom-line results, as well as in purportedly lower cancer rates in teens and young adults. 

No. 5: Polio
Finally, the CDC recognizes polio, a disease of the central nervous system that can lead to paralysis and death in select cases, as its fifth-leading health risk for 2014. Although polio has been eliminated in the U.S., the CDC understands the importance of ending this disease on a global basis so it has no chance of re-entering the United States.

The chief obstacle, according to the CDC, is in entering war-torn regions and difficult-to-access nations with minimal infrastructure, where some 2 million disease-ridden people still suffer. The CDC, in cooperation with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, or GPEI, plans to work with foreign countries to address this serious disease and hopefully put an end to it sooner rather than later. Based on statistics from the GPEI, only three countries in the world remain polio-endemic: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

One of the lead beneficiaries here would again be GlaxoSmithKline, as it makes both the oral polio vaccine, or OPV, which is no longer used in the U.S. but is still used often in other countries around the world, as well as the inactivated poliovirus vaccine, or IPV, which is an injection that can be potentially given at a younger age to induce earlier virus suppression. Any uptick in OPV or IPV orders in the aforementioned three polio-endemic countries would certainly help out Glaxo shareholders.

Clearly, there are more than just five disease issues to tackle moving forward, but it pays to know what's most on the CDC's mind as we move forward.

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