Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Public Health: Childhood is a Dangerous Place

Is there a Department of Scare Creation at Case Western?  This week, we have research reported by their Dr. Scott Frank and colleagues: “Hyper-texting and Hyper-networking Pose New Health Risks for Teens.”  Frank says,

The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers.

(Aside to Dr. Frank:  C’mon, doc.  Do you not know that “hyper text” is already a term in wide usage? Do you know how sometimes there are underlined words, most often in blue, that, if you click on them with your mouse then you are magically transported to another website?  That’s it.  Do you realize that any teens who aren’t already laughing at you for your transparently hysterical research agenda have cause to snicker over your misuse of contemporary language?  But back to my point…)

The subject of a press release by the American Public Health Association, the study claims that teens who text  more than 120 times a day are, compared to light texters:

  • 41% more likely to have used illicit drugs
  • Nearly 3.5 times more likely to have had sex
  • 90% more likely to report having had four or more sexual partners

The results were based on a survey of over 4,000 high school students in the midwest.

The paper, presented at the annual meeting of the APHA, is yet another indicator of the association’s redirection — from promoting social reform to becoming the Popular Front for the Promotion of Family Values.   The news media complied with the APHA’s mongering by publicizing Frank et al.’s findings, for instance here, and so did the usually serious WebMD.

Research like this is meant to say both “childhood is deadly” and “children are dangerous.”  Teenagers have sex, it says, and you grownups shouldn’t take that lightly.

The connection of teen sex and teen drug use to cell phones, iPhones, or the Internet appeals to people who think there is something new, and terrifying, about modernity.  As Carl Phillips notes over at ep-ology, it’s a way of saying “Beware the scary new technology!  It is causing teens to interact.”

Of course, there’s also a race, class, and sex angle:  The study reported that excessive texting (along with what the authors call “hyper-networking,” meaning excessive use of social network sites) is more common among girls, racial minorities, and kids whose parents have less education. One more reason to be suspicious of the poor and the dark-of-skin, says the Popular Front.

Especially, the APHA wants us to beware of girls.  The public health industry — the folks who reminded your grandparents that female sexual desire spreads disease with posters like this one, from the ’40s:

US Government VD Poster, ca. 1940

Source: U. of Minnesota, Social Welfare History Archives

… now tell us to watch out for girls who text.

Mike Stobbe at AP, covering the report, did a (typically) good job of looking deeper into the question.  About half of kids between the ages of 8 and 18 text each day, and the ones who do average 118 texts per day. While texting while driving is a really bad idea, texting about sex isn’t uncommon (Stobbe points out).  Unlike texting while driving, nobody dies from it.

Public heath shouldn’t be a matter of, as the Frank report put it, wake-up calls for parents.   Childhood really is dangerous in some places (Somalia, Congo, and Haiti come to mind, in case physician-researchers currently obsessed with sex amongst American teenagers are looking for something useful to do with their medical skills).  But it isn’t in America.   Sex, even between teenagers, really isn’t very scary.   There are a lot of things we adults could do to make the country and the world less miserable, but spying on our kids isn’t among them.

A Must-Read Book

I urge you to stop what you’re doing and read Rebecca Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010).   It’s a rare combination: clear reporting on how medical science works, insightful consideration of deep moral issues about the uses of human tissue for the advancement of knowledge, and a moving, often troubling, family narrative.

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in 1951.  From samples of her cervical tissue, the immortal cell line called HeLa was developed (by Dr. George Gey, at Hopkins).  Skloot’s story covers the family’s travails before and since, but also digs deep into the problem of race in the business of American medicine.  Her account challenges, or should move us to challenge, the smug certainties about our supposedly post-racial society, and the convenient formulae about “informed consent” and “access to care.” I guess I should say, The Immortal Life should make us ask just what “care” means in today’s system.

Henrietta Lacks and her family members were almost never taken seriously as humans with real problems.  First, they were poor and uneducated black people from tobacco country relocated to Baltimore; then, they were the bearers of the same genes as a woman (Henrietta) who had died of a remarkably aggressive, and therefore medically interesting, cancer; later, they were background and local color to the story of the origin of the thriving, and therefore scientifically interesting, HeLa cell line.

To Skloot’s credit, she’s taken to heart, and acted on, the problem:  she founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help raise funds for education and medical expenses for Henrietta Lacks’s family.  Skloot’s blog, Culture Dish, carries updates about some of the achievements of the foundation and sometimes takes up issues germane to the book, especially regarding personal rights to genetic information (here, for instance).

It’s also impressive that Skloot interweaves in her narrative (and takes up more fully and explicitly in an Afterword) the vexing question of ownership of tissue samples.  She highlights how the expanding capacity to extract information from genetic sequencing ups the ante on the questions of privacy of tissue samples — since it’s now possible to ascertain potentially identifying information from genetic sequences even in a sample from which the usual verbal identifiers (name, address, and so forth) have been removed.  And she asks how the profits potentially available from exploitation of new discoveries should be shared.

The intersection of these problems with the matter of race makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, like James Jones’s Bad Blood and Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, a book that should be required reading for everyone involved in the health sector today.

Science, Race, and Silence

The coverage of the Feb. 12th shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville has been preoccupied, by and large, with the accused killer.   There are details about her background, the 1986 shooting of her brother, her training at Harvard, the 1993 investigation of a bomb mailed to a Harvard professor, her research, her publications, her tenure case at UAH, her husband.

And there has been new talk about the usual issues:  The  perpetual vexation about tenure.  The problem of safety on campuses.   The question, now customary, of whether a shooter’s  writing offers any clues to her or his psyche.

But there hasn’t been much discussion about the victims.  Two of the three who were killed, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel D. Johnson, Sr., were African American professors.  All three of the deceased — the other, Prof. Gopi Podila, was department chair — were known for their support of students, according to obituaries published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.   This in itself is both laudable and rare enough, in a field increasingly driven by the quest for research grants, to deserve mention.  But the sudden death of two science professors who were themselves black Americans and who devoted themselves to educating black students in the sciences is a particularly profound loss to higher education.

That Dr. Ragland Davis was a black woman, one of the rarest of beings in the scientific professoriate, makes the loss particularly poignant.

Statistics are no solace, of course.  But the silence about the loss of two black American professors who died by gunfire is part of the greater, even more stunning, silence about the great many black Americans who die by gunfire every year.

In 2006, the last year for which complete data have been posted by the National Center for Health Statistics (see table 18), 30,896 Americans died by gunshot.  Almost half, 12,791, were murders.  That’s 35 firearm murders per day, on average.   About one every 40 minutes.

Black Americans are over twice as likely to die by gunshot than are white Americans (see table 19 at the link above).  The gunshot death rates are roughly 22 deaths per 100,000 per year and roughly 9 per 100,000 per year, respectively.  Those risks have been remarkably constant, even as deaths from Americans’ main form of deadly mishap, vehicle crashes, have declined.

This is not a plea for gun control.  Better gun control laws would allow a lot of people to live longer, and improve the public’s health — but we hear such pleas every time  a multiple shooting makes the news.  That’s not the point here.

The point is the problem of giving chances to people who haven’t had them.  Or, to put it more bluntly, the point is race.

In particular, the impossibility, still, of talking about how science should be done by people who have not historically been included in shaping it and defining it.  By people other than the ones who, at least until recently, made all the decisions about what’s worth studying and what’s worth changing.  By women, by black Americans, by people who grew up poor, by people who did not attend elite universities on the east coast or in California.

Universities — the elite ones and the many non-elite ones — are indispensable in the endeavor to change science, for all sorts of reasons.  Maybe the best reason is the presence of professors who support and encourage students who aren’t drawn from the usual class of people.

The deaths at UAH should be an occasion for great mourning, not only for professors who died doing their work, but for the project of changing science.  If the silence over the Huntsville victims were the silence of grief, it wouldn’t seem so bad.  But I think it’s the silence of not really caring, or of not wanting to face a shameful truth.  Compared to talking about the links among race, science, and education… well, it’s less taxing to wonder about the shooter’s unpublished novel.

The Anti-Obesity Crusade Invades Academia

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that students at Lincoln U. in Pennsylvania can now be required to take a physical exercise course (“Fitness for Life”) if they have a body-mass index above 30.  The chairman of the college’s Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation pointed out that he sees a responsibility to address the “obesity epidemic.”

Nutty, but not so terrible, perhaps.  The policy is a transparent attempt by a not-so-wealthy university to seem au courant and curry favor with donors, who might like the idea that the school is addressing obesity — which the public health industry keeps insisting is a terrible problem facing young people.

Really, the obese-student policy at Lincoln doesn’t demand much.  Some students have to work out for a few hours a week (it’s a 1-credit course).  Not how they want to spend their time, probably pointless in terms of their health, but not the end of the world.

But pay attention to the commentary.

The director of another university’s center on higher-education law and policy voices concern — not over Lincoln’s feeble gesture at controlling fatness , but over medical confidentiality.  “Being put in a class with other ‘at-risk’ BMI’s walks a little close to disclosure,” he told the Chronicle.

The implication here is that obesity is an illness, and therefore only a physician should be allowed to know that you have it.  Certainly, your classmates shouldn’t.

How can obesity, of all things, be thought of as a secret that would only be revealed if you got into gym shorts and showed up on the treadmill in the fat-students’ class?

There’s a clue in the use of the term “at risk”:  obesity is like sleeping around without using condoms, driving drunk, or smoking near your kids  — it’s supposed to be both dangerous and shameful.  You would only admit being “at risk” to your doctor (who would, we have to assume, dutifully dissuade you from following your naughty instincts).

At the NYT blog The Choice, Rebecca Ruiz notes that the Lincoln faculty will be discussing the problem tomorrow.  So far, there’s been plenty of skepticism there, but a few defenders of the fat-class policy.  And most of the comments responding to Ruiz have been supportive of the idea that a university might require physical exercise.

What isn’t getting mentioned is race.  Is the policy popular because Lincoln is one of only two HBCUs in Pennsylvania, and some of the much-discussed “adverse outcomes” of obesity are conditions that are common among African Americans?  Do people feel  relieved that a predominantly African-American university is addressing a problem that seems somehow racial?  Do we feel reassured that a college that  doesn’t serve America’s traditional wealthy elite is taking on a problem that seems to be a threat to the elite — and a threat that seems born of the bad habits of the poor, especially the dark-and-poor?

Obesity is more common among people who identify themselves as African Americans — even at colleges, as a recently published study showed.  Here, and worldwide, obesity is mostly a problem of poverty.

Doesn’t obesity’s taint stem, at least partly, from the way it reminds Americans of poor people — and the dark-skinned poor in particular?

New Fronts in the War Against the Fat

We thought that American hysteria over obesity was nonpareil, but British anti-fat warriors seem to be giving the American crusaders a run for their money.

Back in April, a fast-food establishment in Leytonstone, in the northeastern part of London, was shut down as a public-health threat.  As Patrick Hayes explains at Spiked, a 2009 initiative of the local council, called the Sustainable Community Strategy, outlaws the establishment of new carry-outs within 400 meters of a school.

Supporting the rhetoric, Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones, president of the European Society for Paediatric Oncology, stated in February that “If we don’t … tackl[e] how much exercise our young people take and how concerned they are about what they eat and their weight, we are going to have another explosion of cancers.”

Last week, the U.K.’s Environment Secretary, Hillary Benn, invoked the fight against obesity as rationale for increasing access to open spaces, asserting that “green spaces are good for us” – a pitch which moved Spike’s sharp-eyed Rob Lyons to note that “You can’t even go for a stroll these days without it being turned into a health initiative,” and to anticipate that “chubby people [will be] quick-marched around a south London park for 30 minutes on a regular basis to help them lose excess pounds.”

There are so many pieces to the fanfare over the “obesity threat” that it’s impossible to assign one cause for the commotion. For a long time, Junkfood Science has investigated the sociology of the “science” of obesity in detail, and has exploded many of the central myths of the anti-obesity movement – most importantly the apocrypha about fatness and mortality.

And Paul Campos’s brilliant book The Obesity Myth (Gotham, 2004) explains how a constellation of wealthy industries together support the lose-weight-now rhetoric.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s assessment of some new books on the topic in this week’s New Yorker embraces the tired rhetoric, assuming that fat is bad and asking why people eat so much.  To her credit, Kolbert takes the plunge into examining the new field of fat studies.  But she ends up disparaging fat studies for “effectively all[ying] itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.” Apparently, asking that fatness be examined in the context of both social structures and individual liberties strays too far from the central dogma of the anti-obesity crusade.  To which (pace Hillary Benn) public parks are balm and tasty fries are anathema.

But an often-neglected aspect of the anti-obesity panic is the overtone of class and the undertone of race. In Leytonstone, for instance, it turns out that the community has been troubled by the profusion of cheap eating establishments, especially in regard to the “anti-social behaviour” that it supposedly brings.

Yet, as Hayes notes at Spiked, it was a Jamaican establishment that was singled out for closure – while more echt-English outlets, like fish-and-chips shops, have been ignored.  The decision that behavior is anti-social being always in the eyes of the beholder – or the skin color of the beheld.

In most of the developed world, fatness is more common among the poor.  In the U.S., it is far more common among African Americans.  Obesity is a marker for being out of power.  To assert that you are against obesity is to state that you intend to identify with those who have power, and mean to keep it.  You can wag your finger at the misdemeanants who eat fast food and fail to exercise — without having to come out and say that what is really troubling you is that your people are starting to look like those people – like the poor, like the dark-complected … like the fat.

No wonder the anti-obesity rhetoric has heated up in Britain, and is catching on in Europe.  It’s a winning way to wage the war against the poor and unentitled, without having to seem arrogant or racist.