What does the surgeon general really know about health?

Here's the newest example of information being distorted for political purposes.

Published August 1, 2007 1:41PM (EDT)

I don't care what side of the political spectrum it's on -- when information gets distorted for political purposes, I get pissed off. So I'm quite angry that, according to the Washington Post, a 2005 surgeon general's report on global health was blocked by the Bush administration for what seem like overtly political reasons.

The background: Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona prepared a report on global health that was then substantially revised by Bush political appointee William R. Steiger, head of HHS's Office of Global Health Affairs. Steiger's supposed reason for his revisions was that Carmona's draft "was often inaccurate or out of date and it lacked analysis and focus," reports the Post. But if you read the description of what happened on Nancy Pelosi's blog (which includes the full text of a letter from Rep. Henry Waxman that quotes extensively from the two drafts), it seems clear that it's Steiger's draft, not Carmona's, that suffers from a lack of analysis and focus.

I'll refrain from quoting too many examples, but one that pops out is from the discussion of women's health. Here's an excerpt from Waxman's letter:

"Dr. Carmona's draft ... has a section on injuries that discusses the impact of violence and sexual attacks on women: 'Women are the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual and intimate partner violence. In various surveys, anywhere between 10 percent and 69 percent of women responding have reported that they were physically assaulted at some point by an intimate partner. Physical violence in these relationships is also often accompanied by psychological abuse. Sexual violence is also often linked to intimate partner violence, with the evidence suggesting that almost one in four women experience sexual violence by an intimate partner. Sexual violence affects both the physical health and psychological well-being of its victims, resulting in such problems as unwanted pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.'

"In contrast, there is no discussion of intimate partner violence, sexual or otherwise, in Mr. Steiger's draft. Violence against women is only discussed in a section on current U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, a major Administration priority."

If that seems upsetting, read the letter -- the examples it gives are striking, and involve not just women but poverty, environmental issues and the impact of tobacco and obesity, to name a few topics. The revised draft contains no section on women's health or "discussion of the impact of women's rights on health." And mentions of condoms as tools for HIV prevention? Those got scrapped, too.

It's yet another example of politics getting in the way of information. I do commend Carmona, though, for standing up for his beliefs. According to Waxman, Carmona stated, "They were clear, this will be a political document or you won't release it, and I refused to release it. I would not put the political rhetoric into that document that they wanted. It would tarnish the Office of Surgeon General to take a political stand, so I refused."

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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