Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Anti-Vaccination Hysteria and the Rich

August 20, 2013


A recent article in Salon suggests that rich people are more likely to buy into anti-vaccine ideas. The author, Alex Seitz-Wald writes:

    California law mandates that all students get vaccinated, but it also makes it easy to get exemptions for personal beliefs. And parents in tony places like Marin County are taking advantage of it in seemingly growing numbers. One public elementary school in Malibu, an affluent beach town just north of Los Angeles, reported that only 58 percent of their students are immunized — well below the recommended 90-plus percent level — according to Shapiro.

    And it’s even worse in some of L.A.’s private schools, where as few as 20 percent of kids are vaccinated in some schools.

We also learn:

    But it’s not just California. Public health officials see large clusters of unvaccinated children in latte-drinking enclaves everywhere, like Ashland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo., where close to 30 percent of children are exempted from one vaccine or another. In some schools in Ashland two-thirds of the students have exemptions, according to Mark Largent, a James Madison College professor who wrote a book about the vaccine debate last year.

This goes against many people’s assumptions about the world. The rich are supposed to be better educated (although George W. Bush put a huge dent in that belief), therefore they should be more immune to anti-scientific beliefs. Yet the Republican Party’s wealthy donors don’t seem bothered by its support for anti-scientific ideas such as creationism and climate change denial. So, could it be possible that the tendency to have anti-scientific beliefs increases with income? I would be interested to know if anyone has done a study on this.

This is a serious matter. Whooping cough (pertussis), which was nearly eradicated has been making a comeback. Infants who are too young to vaccinate are vulnerable to this disease, which is why maintaining a high rate of vaccination is important. Yet vaccination rates have been dropping.

So why do people who should know better refuse to get their children vaccinated? Seitz-Wald quotes a pediatrician, Paul Offit, who says that these people are “used to being in control of their lives and at their jobs and want to control this aspect of their lives as well.” This is probably true, but I suspect there is probably more to it than that. The idea of vaccinations implies a belief in a common good. (Jonas Salk famously refused to accept money for his polio vaccine.) And these elites of our society have increasingly come to hate the idea of a common good.

The Health Care Feeding Frenzy

February 24, 2013


The most recent issue of Time magazine features an article by Steven Brill which deals with the question of why health care costs are so much higher in the U.S. than they are in other countries. Brill shows that it basically comes down to greed: hospitals charge high fees simply because they can get away with it. The logic of the “free market” doesn’t apply to health care. If, for example, you’re in a car accident and your leg gets crushed, you don’t have a choice of whether or not to get medical attention. And you don’t have the luxury of being able to shop around for which emergency room has the lowest prices. (This is an argument that we on the Left have been making for decades. It is satisfying to see a mainstream media outlet finally admit that we are right.)

Brill describes how “non-profit” hospitals rake in enormous profits, so much so that their top administrators can receive multi-million dollar salaries. Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers use their influence to try to keep costs down, but their efforts don’t apply to the millions of Americans who don’t have coverage. What we’re seeing is a sophisticated form of bottom-feeding: hospitals are gouging the most vulnerable members of our society. Brill is also critical of the pharmaceutical industry. He demolishes their claims that research and development justify the high prices they charge.

Brill gives a spirited defense of Medicare. He shows that it is actually run in an efficient manner. (Hospitals are reimbursed more quickly by Medicare than they are by private insurers.) He is, on the other hand, critical of Obamacare. Among other things, he points out that it will likely lead to higher insurance premiums.

Brill suggests expanding Medicare so that it applies to everyone. This strikes me as the most rational solution to our health care problems.

This article on Obamacare by Doug Henwood is also worth reading.

Obamacare Lives

June 29, 2012

I owe John Roberts an apology. I had written him off as nothing more than a right-wing hack. It turns out that he is smarter than I thought. In arguing for the majority in their ruling on Obamacare, he wrote: “The federal government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance.” That’s exactly what the individual mandate is: a tax on people who cannot afford health insurance.

All my liberal friends are high fiving one another over this decision. Yet this bill will not expand the social safety net. True, it does expand Medicaid, but it also makes cuts in Medicare. The result is a zero sum game. Obamacare will not solve the health care crisis. It will merely change the parameters of the crisis.

The Return of Navajo Boy

October 11, 2011

The Multicultural Center at the University of Oregon recently held a screening of the documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy. The director, Jeff Spitz, spoke beforehand. He told about how in the late 1990’s a man named Bill Kennedy approached him with a film that his recently deceased father had made in the 1950’s. It was a half-hour documentary about the Navajos (Diné) called Navajo Boy. Kennedy asked Spitz to help him preserve his father’s work. Spitz could make no sense out of the film, which had no sound. He took the film to a library in Chicago that had an extensive collection of literature and films related to Native Americans. The people at the library told him that the film showed a ceremony that, according to Navajo religious belief, should never be filmed. They advised him to destroy the movie. Spitz couldn’t bring himself to do this. Instead, he and Kennedy decided to locate the people in the film and ask them what should be done with it.

The documentary begins with Kennedy talking with Lorenzo Begay, a descendent of the family in the film. (We’re not told how Kennedy managed to locate him.) He lives with his family on a reservation in the austerely beautiful Monument Valley in Utah. He takes Kennedy to meet his uncle and his mother, Elsie Mae Cly Begay, both of whom appear as children in the film.

Elsie Mae Cly Begay in the 1950’s.

He shows the movie to the Begay family. They seem pleased to see themselves in it. We are then told about the family’s history. During the 1950’s, they supported themselves by raising sheep, which they still do today. They were also paid by a local merchant to pose for photographs that would be used for postcards. (They also appeared as extras in John Ford’s The Searchers). Elsie Mae’s mother, Happy Cly, was believed to be the most photographed woman in America at that time.

Happy Cly

Some members of the family also worked in the uranium mines. The Navajo workers were not warned about the health hazards of radiation exposure. One of Elsie Mae’s brothers worked in the mines, and he later developed cancer. The film discusses his efforts to get compensation from the government. Also, radioactive tailings from these minds contaminated the ground water. Elsie Mae’s hogan was built using rocks from the mines. Later it was found to contain 80 times the acceptable level of radiation, so it was destroyed. Two of Elsie Mae’s sons died of cancer, and a third has recently developed it. Happy Cly died from cancer. It turns out that the ceremony shown in the documentary by Bill Kennedy’s father is that of a medicine man trying to cure her.

Elsie Mae had a baby brother, John Wayne Cly, who also appears in Kennedy’s movie. When Happy Cly died, the family was unable to take care of him, so they gave him to white missionaries who promised to bring him back when he was older. They never did. When Kennedy’s documentary is shown at a Navajo museum, John Cly, who was then living in New Mexico, reads about it in a newspaper. The film ends with an emotional reunion between him and his family. There is also a postscript that relates how Elsie Mae now travels the country and to other countries to tell people about what uranium mining did to the Navajo nation.

This is an interesting and important film. Incredibly, the government wants to reopen some of these mines to provide fuel for a new generation of nuclear reactors. This is more evidence that nuclear energy is a bad idea.

You can learn more about this film at

Forks Over Knives

July 31, 2011

Recently I was diagnosed with diabetes. My doctor recommended I eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat and processed foods. I changed my diet accordingly, and since then my blood sugar level has gone down and I feel more energetic. So I was naturally interested when I heard about Lee Fulkerson’s documentary, Forks Over Knives, which argues that if people were to switch to a plant-based diet, the incidence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes would go down. The film mainly follows the careers of two doctors, T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn. Campbell did a nutrition study in the Phillippines, where he discovered to his surprise that children from wealthy families had a higher incidence of liver cancer. He noted that these children tended to consume more meat and dairy products than poorer children did. He later conducted a study in China, in which he found that in areas where people had adopted a “Western diet” – increased consumption of meat, dairy products and processed foods – there was a higher incidence of cancer. This led him to the conclusion that large amounts of animal protein can trigger the development of cancer cells in some people.

Esselstyn was a surgeon who specialized in coronary bypass surgery. His work with heart attack patients led him to the conclusion that a plant-based diet reduces the incidence of heart disease. He argues that improved diet can reduce the need for surgery (hence the film’s title: “forks over knives”.) The film features various interviews with people who have adopted plant-based diets. It also follows Fulkerson as he tries this same diet.

It has been largely forgotten that up until the twentieth century most people did not consume a lot of animal protein. I remember years ago reading Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. At one point Marx says that Bonaparte bribed the soldiers in the French army by giving them sausages. I remember thinking that those soldiers were awfully easy to please. What I didn’t realize at the time was that in nineteenth century France sausages were probably a luxury for most people. Go into any supermarket nowadays and you will find row after row of sausages in the meat section. What has changed is that modern refrigeration has made it cheaper and easier to store and transport meat and dairy products. Also the development of factory farms has made these foods cheaper. The result is that many people now eat more animal protein than is really good for them.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Jack Kevorkian (1928-2011)

June 4, 2011

Jack Kevorkian has died – from natural causes, ironically enough. Kevorkian was an advocate of assisted suicide. The media dubbed him “Dr. Death”. (I think it would have been more clever if they had called him “Suicide Jack”.) I have always had deeply mixed feelings about Kevorkian. On the one hand, I technically agree with the argument he was making. On the other hand, I was put off by the, shall we say, enthusiastic manner in which Kevorkian made his argument. (Derek Humphrey, of the Hemlock Society, called Kevorkian “a zealot”.) Kevorkian promoted himself in such a way that at one point he began to seem like a McDonald’s of death. Still, he was attacked in a manner that struck me as hypocritical. Kevorkian spent eight years in prison for second-degree murder, yet in what way was he any worse than, say, the state of Texas, which has executed hundreds of people, including at least one innocent person?

I actually began to pine for Kevorkian’s voice when the Republicans cynically tried to whip up public hysteria over the Terri Schiavo case. This whole episode deeply offended me. I remember when I went to see my father during the final weeks of his life, I found a notice taped to his refrigerator door, which was signed by my father and by his physician. It was an instruction to emergency medical technicians that under no circumstances was my father to be resuscitated. My father was continually ill during the last ten years of his life. He spent his final months flat on his back. There are times when the most humane thing to do is let go.

Why Some People Don’t Trust Doctors

June 1, 2011

I went to get my annual check-up the other day. The doctor asked me if anything was bothering me. I told her that I feel tired much of the time, even though I get eight hours of sleep every night. She said she thought I might have sleep apnea, so she would refer me to a clinic where I could get tested for that. She then asked me if I had any other problems. I said that my back has been feeling stiff for the past few weeks. She said she would give me something that would help with that. She then went out of the room for several minutes. When she came back she handed me a referral for the clinic. She then handed me a piece of paper with a prescription written on it. She said it was for a muscle relaxant. I was to take a pill twice a day. She then told me that I shouldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery while I was taking this medication, because it will make me drowsy. Now, I had just complained to this doctor about feeling tired, and here she was giving me a prescription for something that will make me drowsy. Metaphorically speaking, this seemed to me like pouring gasoline on a fire. Moreover, I, like most people in this country, don’t live near public transportation, so I pretty much have to drive everywhere. When I protested to her, she merely said I would have to stay home while I was taking it. So, I was supposed to remain at home all day and take naps, just so my back wouldn’t be stiff. I would rather have a stiff back and get things done.

This is an example, I think, of why some people don’t trust doctors. She apparently felt obligated to prescribe me something, even if it was something that I didn’t want or need. I think it is because of this sort of thing that people are attracted to dubious “alternative” medicines and treatments.

Dennis Banks

May 14, 2011

Dennis Banks, who was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, came to speak at the University of Oregon. His appearance was part of a day long series of events dealing with the problem of diabetes in our society. Banks has for years been working to draw attention to the epidemic of diabetes in Native American communities. However, he also used the occasion to talk about his political experiences.

Banks began by talking about his childhood. An Anishinaabe, he was born in the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in 1937. When he was four years old, he and his sister were taken away from their parents, and sent to a boarding school with other Indian children. They were not allowed to speak their languages and practice their customs. The children were only taught to do manual labor. This was part of a U.S. government program to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The aim was to destroy the cultures and identities of Native Americans. This was a form of genocide. Interestingly, the U.S. was doing this at the same time it was fighting the Nazis in Europe.

According to Banks, beatings were common at the boarding schools he was sent to. He ran away repeatedly. He escaped for the last time when he was fifteen. He felt bitter that his mother did not seem to write to him while he was in the schools. Three years ago, some people were doing a documentary about him. They went to an office in Kansas City where there are records of these schools. There, they found packets of letters that his mother had written him.

Banks founded one of the first AIM chapters in Minneapolis in 1968. He had observed the civil rights and anti-war movements, and he came to believe that a similar movement was needed to advocate for the rights of Native Americans. In 1973, AIM occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota for seventy-one days to protest rampant corruption on the PIne Ridge Indian Reservation. (Banks prefers to say that they “secured” the town.) Afterwards Banks and Russell Means were charged with 16 felony counts and faced two hundred years in prison. Their trial lasted nine months. At one point an FBI agent testified, “My job was to bring down Dennis Banks.” As he was leaving, he said to Banks, “I’m sorry, Mr. Banks. It was my job.” The government prosecutors repeatedly introduced fabricated evidence. Eventually, the judge threw out all the charges.

The second half of Banks’s talk was devoted to the problem of diabetes. He blamed it on the diet of most Americans. He pointed to the example of the Pimas, whose lands are bisected by the U.S.-Mexican border. The rate of diabetes among Pimas north of the border was far higher than among those in Mexico, even though the two groups are genetically identical. Banks believes that this is because the Pimas in the U.S. have adopted the U.S. diet of the twentieth century, meaning more fat and less starch and fiber. Oddly, Banks made it sound as though he has been fighting the medical establishment on this issue, even though the recommendations he made (eat more vegetables, get more exercise) are often made by doctors.

Banks’s talk went a bit long. In his discussion of diabetes, he made many of the same points over and over again. I have to admit, I became a bit fidgety towards the end. Nevertheless, Banks is a powerful and affecting speaker who has interesting and important things to say.