The resurgence and outbreak of the most contagious virus on the planet, measles, has led to a swarm of media stories that have tried to report responsibly about the pockets of perpetrators of bogus science.
Even in the face of rock-solid research, done at the population level, proving without question that there is no link between autism and autism spectrum disorder and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, the naysayers continue to promote ideas that have the same validity as racial eugenics of scientific quacks and Nazi racists. There are many parties who are helping to fan the flames of ignorance that threaten innocent children who have no ability to tell parent deniers that they put infants at serious health risks when they do not have their kids immunized from extremely infectious and very preventable illnesses.
Former Playmate Jenny McCarthy and clusters of deniers on both sides of the political spectrum are partially responsible for the resurgence of measles we are seeing around the country today.
What is particularly irresponsible is when formerly balanced media outlets choose to fan the debate flames to promote their products when there is no scientific or medical basis for claiming the issue is “a debate” as opposed to a public health crisis that requires layers of interventions to ensure the best health outcomes for all of us.
Tonight, I read the Oregonian newspaper’s story seeking to solicit input from science deniers with this astounding headline: “In the debate over vaccines, where do you stand?” At the bottom of the story were numerous blog comments that were not moderated. No surprise the journalistic adventure gave Portland’s now world-famous anti-fluoride, vaccination-denier, and anti-public-health community another platform to spout nonsense. Such sloppy journalism keeps bogus science alive and well, even when quackery like eugenics is now considered bad and un-modern. (In the end, quack science is still quack science.)
Reporter Kjerstin Gabrielson wrote, “What influenced your decision to immunize or not immunize your children? Has the recent measles outbreak in the United States swayed your opinion? What concerns do you have about immunizations? What concerns do you have about the diseases vaccines are designed to prevent?”
In response to the Jenny McCarthy style journalism I found, I chose to write this note directly to the reporter. Here it is. I hope she can make amends later for her journalistic transgressions and learn a little bit more the history of communicable diseases in the Oregon, where diseases like smallpox literally helped to wipe out many Native American communities before most white settlers arrived.
Letter Sent Feb. 4, 2015, by email:
Ms. Gabrielson: What exactly were you and your editors possibly thinking framing the public heath issue of a scientifically proven health intervention (MMR vaccination) that is used globally to save lives by giving precedence to perpetrators of junk science whose ideas have now been thoroughly disproven by peer-reviewed, country-wide, and massive population-based studies showing absolutely no proven link to autism and the MMR vaccine?
Do you even understand what a population-based study is? Do you understand statistical significance or P-values? Do you understand the perpetrator of this bogus original article has been thoroughly debunked? Do you even know the history of this state where infectious diseases literally wiped out entire Native American villages on a scale that makes Ebola look like a mild chest cold?
If I were to start claiming, say that European Jewry was responsible for causing World War I and helped to defeat Germany, would you print an article with a headline talking about, tell us your thoughts on the debate about Jews’ role causing WWI. Would you open up your comment blog to Nazis and skinheads who will speak with utter sincerity using widely disproven racial eugenics theory that have the exact same scientific validity as those perpetrated by former Playmate Jenny McCarthy?
Maybe you should learn about what happened to Native Americans in Oregon barely 160 years ago, due to smallpox and malaria. Maybe that might inspire you and your paper to use your brains. Promoting profits for junk reporting at the expense of public health is rather disgraceful if you ask me.
One thing I have never shaken since my days as a rookie reporter is my penchant for calling out the obvious. This is one of the sacred duties of the press: to speak truth to power. This also means calling a spade a spade, and bullshit for what it is, and what it smells like.
Anyone who has ever worked in the business of reporting news and telling facts knows this is one of the press’s sacred trusts—and myths—and the clearer we are in doing that, the better our society is from having that unbiased information.
Today, I stumbled on Marcy Wheeler’s blog, the Empty Wheel, which tackles many hot-button policy issues. Last year she blogged about climate change in a piece called “The Cost of Bullshit: Climate Change, National Security, and Inaction.” She pointed out that the cost for maintaining the status quo was too high, even when major government agencies from the Department of Defense and the Department of State concluded that the issue was a critical concern to U.S. national interests. Yet, no actions were being taken by the government, and all of the reports on the emerging crisis were “mere bullshit—more wasted government employees’ time and taxpayer money.”
Sure easy for a blogger not on the payroll to diss hard-working public workers and policy-makers, right? Or, is Ms. Wheeler simply calling out the obvious, like reporters have always done, or thought they were doing.
Will a public health fad meaningfully address the main killers of Americans?
The cost of bullshit has been on my mind late, particularly regarding public health jargon that inflates busy-looking arm-waving, but does not change reality.
For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of working in the public health is the field’s faddish way it labels its collective actions to address chronic disease issues, such as obesity, using fancy sounding concepts like “policy, systems, and environmental change.” Mon dieu, what big words, what big ideas.
This is an expression coming from the top, from the venerable U.S. Centers and Disease Control (CDC), to explain national efforts to tackle the monster that is chronic disease—the leading causes of death in our ever-fattening and ever growing income-unequal country.
These diseases kill seven in 10 Americans, and of the CDC’s meager budget of under $7 billion for our national public health effort is a mere drop in the bucket compared to other priorities of the $1.2 trillion national budget that is so-called “non-discretionary spending.”
The CDC still estimates 18% of U.S. GDP spending is on healthcare, and a third of it at the place where the most outrageously overpriced and at the same time least effective primary care interventions can take place—hospitals.
So what do public health officials do, when faced with a handful of breadcrumbs thrown to them from Congress? They invent concepts that make it appear that public health is doing something, when there is little or no clear evidence population benefits are accruing based on investments at this level in the large ocean. Yes, I am talking about the catchy and jargon-laden ideas like “policy, systems, and environmental change.”
This is a hodge-podge of activities that encompass everything from starting farmers markets to promoting smoke-free buildings. Here are a couple of definitions I randomly found from some online sources:
State of Mississippi: “Our environment and the policies and systems in it shape the pattern of our everyday lives and have a profound influence on our health. The design and walkability of communities, the availability of low-cost fruits and vegetables, and the smoking policies in our workplaces have a direct impact on our physical activity, diet and health.”
State of Maryland: “Policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE change) refers to public health interventions that modify environments to provide healthy options and make healthy choices easy for everyone.”
Fairfax County Virginia: “Policy, systems and environmental change is a way of modifying the environment to make healthy choices practical and available to all community members. By changing laws and shaping physical landscapes, a big impact can be made with little time and resources. By changing policies, systems and/or environments, communities can help tackle health issues like obesity, diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.”
Budgets for this kind of intervention exist in most public health jurisdictions, and public health leaders are doing to the talk, because they have so few funds to do the walk. But public health experts end up playing in a small sandbox when these investments are measured against other spending, and then we spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves through published papers, webinars, conferences, and the like that this is working. The illusion is powerful, like the illusory power of the Iron Throne in the Game of Thrones, except the shadow from a fad still does not make meaningful change when the numbers are crunched and the costs are calculated regarding chronic disease.
Public health departments who get funding through competitive grants from the CDC spearhead these efforts and then spend extensive amounts of time documenting their work trying to prove the bread crumbs made a difference to the overall health crisis facing Americans.
About $200 million was doled out from 2011 and 2012 through an effort called Communities Putting Prevention to Work (the amount initially announced in 2010 was about $380 million). In one case, Public Health-Seattle & King County published findings that show its CPPW-grant-funded efforts in schools cut youth obesity in specific schools by 17 points. Great job, except the funding was not permanent and it was not renewed when the grant ran out. The program is now in the past tense.
In 2014, public health professionals learned another funding source, the Community Transformation Grants, which also promote the policy, systems, and environmental work, is being cut too. Some can argue the money is being allocated to other programs that tackle chronic disease, focusing on heart disease and diabetes.
More musical chairs without really changing the big picture again?
I do not mean to belittle the work of public health people doing this work. They are my colleagues. I respect them. And the work being done, like promoting activities to reduce tobacco use and get more people eating healthy food, should be continued.
But as a field, I am convinced this type of work is self-delusional because it hides the nasty realities of how much larger issues shape the public’s health, such as how transportation budgets are allocated, how cheap petro-based energy is spurring obesity in measurable ways, how legislation is crafted by special interests at the state and federal level, and how the principle of health care is considered a privilege not a right in the United States. (In Denmark, by contrast, the public funds about 85% of all health care through taxes, and the system is rooted in both law and a social contract that is premised on system where all citizens are provided free and equal access to quality health care.)
The nasty realities we do not want to think about, using a contemporary TV metaphor, would be what happens when the violent kings of Westeros cut deals and cut heads, to maintain order in that mythical, lovable place with White Walkers, a giant ice wall, and fire-breathing critters. Mother of Dragons, public health is not, that is for sure!
I imagine a new fad will emerge in public health in the next three years, like it does in management. We might change the concept, but we likely may even have a smaller piece of the government pies.
No, public health jurisdictions cannot stop working until we see changes on these fronts. But the more we in public health delude ourselves that we are making a difference with scraps from the table, the more easily we are duped into accepting that the larger model is as it should be, and how it shall always be.
We will continue kvetching about farmers markets and soda machines, but not moving in a rigorous way upstream, where budget deals are made with transportation dollars, for starters. And I think we have to start being honest with ourselves about what we are accomplishing in the sandbox and whether this is the best use of our meager and diminishing resources.
I love Denmark, reportedly the world’s “happiest country.” I could live there. I could die there. In fact, for years I had truly hoped to marry a Danish woman and become part of the extended Danish family.
Well, not all of these happened. I clearly have not died, and I have not married a Danish woman, though I have known many amazing Danish women who impress me by their linguistic abilities, intelligence, dry sense of humor, warmth, and worldliness. They have good schools in Denmark, and Danes have some other quality I cannot fully explain that always has charmed me. They also are very humble despite, overall, being extremely capable (take for example the promotion of wind energy). They also like cozy, or “hygge,” which can mean enjoying each other’s company over an after-dinner coffee and sitting in a living room without any hurry to dash off anywhere. I felt it there, particularly with my friends in Copenhagen and Aarhus.
I was very fortunate to have spent about a month in the summer of 2000 living in Aarhus, the second largest city of Denmark, on the Jutland. It is a lovely city, with a world-class university, a great transportation system, great white sand beaches north of the city, and generally very friendly residents. (I just discovered they have published a plan to turn Aarhus into a world-class biking city, with a strong local investment in public spending and planning.) My host, a wonderful Danish pediatrician I had met in Greenland in 1999, took me to some very out of the way places and gave me a place to call home base while I worked on photography projects that summer in Greenland and on the European continent. After 12 long years, I am finally publishing some of those photos here. Hej hej.
For my current class on management in my public health program at the University of Washington, we are examining the Snohomish County Health District’s strategic plan. Snohomish, just north of Seattle, has nearly 720,000 people. The two top killers in the county are chronic diseases (cancer and heart disease). The county’s health profile largely mirrors the rest of the nation’s—residents are suffering from obesity and being overweight, they rely heavily on personal vehicle use to travel, and their built environment has been created mostly to facilitate personal vehicle use. (There were 449 vehicular deaths in the county from 2002-08; deaths from unintentional injuries rank as 4th leading killer in the county.)
In short, the county is premised on sprawl development, which encouraged real-estate speculation, all collapsing with a bang when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Such sprawl, subsidized by taxpayer funded infrastructure (i.e., roads to serve the automobile) and extremely cheaply priced energy (gasoline), of course is one of the major factors leading to this nation’s ever-worsening health indicators, such as a rise in type 2 diabetes and bulging waist lines.
By comparison, Denmark, where I visited for more than a month in 2000, has a robust public health system and a healthier population than the United States’, and it spends about half per capita on health care than the extremely inefficient U.S. system. The country has strict land use and planning regulations, and nationally and locally they have a heavily subsidized public transportation system that enables residents to commute to work and their homes by bike, bus, and light rail.
I lived in Riis Skov, just north of Aarhus, the country’s second largest city. Aarhus, even back in 2000, had an incredibly well-designed multi-modal transportation system that encouraged “active transportation” (biking, walking). Today, one can find free bikes in the city. The downtown area, site of the historic cathedral and main square, by the port, was pedestrian only. Bike paths in all directions from the city were designated in blue painted paths on the streets and with bike charettes or with clear white lines. People rode their low-tech, three-speed bikes everywhere, even in the rain (many did not use bike helmets, interestingly).
Here in Seattle, where I live, we have nowhere near as safe or robust a multi-modal transportation system. There are no blue-painted bike lanes. We have bike lanes painted onto dangerous busy streets, and we lack the sophistication in planning that Aarhus had achieved years before Seattle could build a light rail. We have a lot to learn from our Danish friends. Go Aarhus, go Denmark!