Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When you get the H1N1 flu because the Centers for Disease Control botched the vaccine program, you suffer for a week. When you have a CDC more attuned to the political than the scientific, the pain lasts a lot longer. In fact, it’s possible that the distraction of politics is the cause of fumbles in handling the agency’s real job.

Health officials have struggled with what President Obama declared “a national emergency.” Even though there finally might be enough vaccine, the CDC just recalled 800,000 doses. This follows an incompetent effort to meet American demand for the new vaccine. Massively behind schedule, the government managed to deliver only a fraction of the promised 160 million doses.

The head of the CDC, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, administered a dose of understatement, warning the H1N1 vaccine rollout was “going to be a little bumpy.” The director, one of Time magazine’s 2009 “people who matter,” got the job based on politicizing medicine. He “managed to persuade balky New Yorkers to say fuhgeddaboutit to cigarettes and trans fats in restaurants,” wrote Time. He’s an appropriate choice for what the CDC has become.

Alarmed by the “national emergency,” parents were desperate to find the vaccine. Even that desperation was part of the CDC design. CDC communications strategist Kristine Sheedy actually complained that “people generally don’t panic.” Being “overreassuring and minimizing a threat … actually presents a risk,” she continued. They want to “alarm people just enough so they’ll get the vaccine.”

Getting alarmed didn’t turn out to be realistic. The flu wasn’t anywhere near as bad as predicted. “I think it is very likely to be the mildest pandemic on record,” Marc Lipsitch told one paper. Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiology professor, “led a federally funded analysis” of the swine flu, so he should know.

But science and medicine are complicated and it would be fair to give the CDC the benefit of the doubt if those were its only major problems. They aren’t.

The CDC has been plagued by difficulties for several years. In an era where Climategate casts doubt on science in general, scientific accuracy should be a particular concern.

In 2005, the CDC falsely claimed that obesity was killing 400,000 Americans a year, making it our No. 1 health problem. But those numbers collapsed under their own weight.

Upon being found out, CDC first attempted to tweak its results down to 365,000. A later study showed even the adjusted total was about 14 times higher than the roughly 26,000 believed to be correct. To add insult to injury, that new study “found that people who are modestly overweight actually have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight,” according to the Associated Press.

CDC refused to admit how totally ridiculous its results were. AP reported that: “the CDC is not going to use the brand-new figure of 25,814 in its public awareness campaigns and is not going to scale back its fight against obesity.”

Once again, the CDC wanted to alarm people just enough so that agency bureaucrats would have a compliant public willing to take their advice. And again, reality wasn’t quite so alarming.

For at least a decade, CDC has been making suspect claims about what it views as vices - food, alcohol and tobacco. One CDC classic concluded its findings “suggest higher alcohol taxes and higher minimum legal drinking ages are associated with lower STD incidence among certain age groups.”

It’s a claim like that can have impact years later. In an article just this past September, two medical “experts” took that poorly substantiated leap even further, calling for an alcohol tax to fund health care reform. A “tax increase of 3 cents per beer would cut youth gonorrhea by 9 percent,” they argued. Why not tax beers 35 cents and defeat gonorrhea altogether?

The CDC also pushes a creeping prohibitionism one tiny grant, one tiny nudge at a time. Among the latest is spending $4 million to “develop web-based tools to evaluate the potential impact of prevention strategies to reduce youth exposure to alcohol marketing.” The award went to the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth, a group more committed to fighting the alcohol industry than anything else.

The CDC is supposed to be “dedicated to protecting health and promoting quality of life through the prevention and control of disease, injury, and disability.” With many public health scourges of the 20th century long defeated, remaining challenges can seem insurmountable. Inch by inch progress against the remaining real challenges to public health isn’t going to land congressional funding boosts after gushers of fawning publicity. Changing the subject and even changing the definition of public health fixes that problem for the CDC. That’s why the CDC’s public health mission quietly transforms into political health manipulation.

Dan Gainor is the Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center’s vice president for business and culture.

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