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CAM on campus: Black History Month

I emerge from the haze of board exams and residency interviews to blog about a recent development on campus that disappointed me, involving a university celebration of Black History Month.

To provide context, I must tell you that my medical school campus has the university hospital for a poor city full of immigrants and racial minorities. White citizens make up about a quarter of the city population. I am extremely proud of our faculty and students who strive to serve our surrounding community. Some of these efforts are based, predictably, in medical care. This care is provided not just by working in the hospital and clinic, but also by promoting health and prevention through community health fairs and mobile outreach programs. Other efforts are aimed at helping local kids get to college and into health-related careers. Establishing a physician workforce that represents a diversity of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds is considered an important step in reducing racial disparities in health care access and outcomes (e.g., 1, 2), and that mission is embraced wholeheartedly at my institution. (An anecdotal example of the diversity in our school and hospital: it is neither rare nor surprising for me to look around a random gathering and realize that I am the only pale, American-born man in attendance.) Therefore, one might expect my university’s celebration of Black History Month to be kind of a big deal.

Here is the announcement for our university-sponsored celebration of Black History Month. The title of the speech that kicks off the celebration is “Holistic Medicine – Ancient Africans to African-Americans.” The next event is a screening of a video called “Hidden Dangers in Kids’ Meals: Genetically Engineered Foods.” Clearly the celebration is being used to address health concerns in the black community, which seems entirely appropriate for a medical university. However, as regular blog readers have already predicted, I found myself getting increasingly upset about the particular topics chosen to meet this worthy goal.

I am upset not simply because my skeptical hackles raise at the term “holistic medicine,” but because I feel that here is an example of CAM ideology marring an opportunity for meaningful service. The most charitable word I can use for the topics listed is “controversial.” Airing of controversial views can certainly be appropriate in a university setting, but not if and when the goal is supporting the health of a historically disenfranchised part of our community.

Guest speaker on “holistic medicine”

Local physician Kevin Holder, MD gave a talk titled, “Holistic Medicine – Ancient Africans to African-Americans.” I am sad that my clinical duties prevented me from attending the talk. I will refrain from speculating on its content, but one might infer what Dr. Holder means by “holistic medicine” from the website of his Center for Preventive Medicine, particularly the “Our Philosophy” and “Our Team” pages.

From the standpoint of understanding the history and current prevalence of unconventional health beliefs in African and African-American communities, I can appreciate this topic as germaine to Black History Month even if I would disagree with Dr. Holder as to the medical value of those beliefs. It is a shame I missed the event, because it might have been a great opportunity to have a discussion about the appropriateness of incorporating pre-(non-)scientific philosophies into a modern medical practice. It is a fascinating question: where should we draw the line between hard-nosed adherence to science-based medicine and pragmatic appeals to a community with strongly held traditions? Perhaps the celebration organizers had in mind to foster such a debate.

The cranky skeptic in me cannot help speculating, however, that it was explicit sympathy for CAM-like philosophies in the planning committee that resulted in the scheduling of both Dr. Holder and the subsequent, much less defensible event.

Screening of an anti-GM food movie

The next event is a screening of “Hidden Dangers in Kids’ Meals: Genetically Engineered Foods” by anti-GM (genetically modified) food activist Jeffrey Smith. Here can be found the 24-minute video for the brave, and below is an outline for everyone else:

  • Ominous music opens the video, and scattered throughout are gripping quotes like “I don’t want to sell my children’s future for a handful of magic beans.”
  • Descriptions of how the industry controls research programs and regulatory bodies (I do not know to what extent this is true) are plentiful, along with stories of individuals being pressured or even expelled if they ask the wrong questions or voice the wrong opinions. An analogy is made to tobacco companies spinning science about cigarettes.
  • Frequently cited experiments document the horrible effects of a particular GM food on a group of laboratory animals. Interestingly, there seems to be no consistent pattern in the particular adverse effects cited; it sounds like GM foods can cause just about any pathology.
  • Anecdotes are also offered about adverse effects in farm animals, ranging from the mysterious death of twelve cows in Germany to “The cows didn’t care for it” in Iowa.
  • Broad claims are made for the effect of food on behavior. An unidentified study apparently showed that “25% of tantrums in 3-year-olds [were] due to additives or colorings in their food.” A Wisconsin school that instituted sweeping changes in its lunch offerings and cafeteria environment reported a resulting improvement in student behavior and attention. Neither of these dramatic examples, of course, specifically involved GM foods. But the audience gets the message that healthy food is better than processed junk, and presumably they can make the connection from there.
  • Another example of this implicit yet bold assumption—that GM food is associated with all manner of ills—is the closing statement that begins, “With the rise in obesity and diabetes…” and ends with concerns about GM food.
  • At one point the video creator Jeffrey Smith, to his credit, speaks carefully about not being over-confident about conclusions based on a single, small experiment in animals. He says it “would be irresponsible,” however, not to proceed cautiously until better studies are done. The audience is left to take his word that better studies than these have indeed not been done.

The most detailed, science-y part of the video involves the implications of an article published in Nature Biotechnology titled “Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract.” Jeffrey Smith describes how transgenes were shown to jump from GM soy to bacterial flora in the human gut. He expresses concerns about transfer of antibiotic resistance genes, pesticide production genes, promoters that might insert themselves anywhere in the new genome… It all sounds pretty scary until you read the abstract of the Nature paper, which ends with “we conclude that gene transfer did not occur during the feeding experiment.” Reading the full article in order to judge the researchers’ conclusion versus Jeffrey’s opposite interpretation is left as an exercise for the blog reader.

Finally, for those who like a good “Quack Miranda Warning,” the one at the end of the video (at 8:40 here) is amusing.

A scathing critique of Jeffrey Smith’s claims and use of evidence can be found here, at a site that appears to have been founded by a couple of food science professors fed up by this guy. I do not have the time and patience to wade through it, but suffice to say that the creator of the video “Hidden Dangers in Kids’ Meals” looks an awful lot like a crank to me. The link to Dr. Gorski’s favorite Health Ranger, Mike Adams, on Jeffrey Smith’s home page increases my suspicion. I welcome any comments by blog readers better versed in this field or with this individual.

The purpose of screening the Jeffrey Smith video for Black History Month eludes me. Only a handful of the activists, experts, parents, and innocent children depicted had much melanin in their skin. But more importantly, I do not think we support a marginalized community by promoting fear of greedy corporations and complicit government. Raise your hand if you think a conspiracy theory about food is what black Americans really need right now.

Honoring Black History Month by serving black Americans

For my university, a public celebration of Black History Month is not simply an exercise in honoring diversity. Our school and hospital are prominent institutions in a city of many black children who could benefit greatly from inspiration and guidance. I applaud the goal of using the celebration to spotlight the health of Black Americans, which by many metrics lags deplorably behind the health of other racial groups in this country. A particularly salient problem is the high rate of obesity in this population, making all the more potentially valuable a program to promote healthy lifestyle and diet.

I wish, however, that this intention had found a different execution than holistic medicine and anti-GM hysteria. Here is an alternative: how about featuring First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative? She is focused on urban children’s health, though her concerns are more about access to fresh produce and safe playgrounds rather than exposure to GM foods. Our mayor Cory Booker recently kicked off the Let’s Move! campaign in this city and is using Facebook to lose weight himself. The messages from this campaign could have been tailored to black youth (include yoga for exercise if you want some CAM) and used as part of the Black History Month celebration instead of the dubious health messages we are sending now. Even better than the non-magical, non-paranoid character of the Let’s Move! campaign: its national and local leaders are terrific black American role models. (Of course, I appreciate that it would be very difficult to secure either of these high-profile individuals for a guest appearance. But I bet there are other folks in our city working on this problem…)

Americans, whether African- or any other kind, deserve from their medical universities the truth as best as we know it. We can do better than this misguided, misleading, fear-mongering video.

Posted in: Medical Academia

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