Friday, June 02, 2006

Health

Every child deserves a sober start (July 21, 2006)

Project Prevention kicked off a national awareness tour earlier this summer and has been criss-crossing the country in the non-profit's lumbering RV. Founder Barbara Harris hopes to keep at least 2,006 drug-addicted women from procreation over the long-term this year alone. The group pays addicts for using a variety of birth control strategies. Of course, the novel approach has plenty of critics:
Critics worry that the program is racist, disproportionately focusing on minority women, and preys on people ill-prepared to make life-altering decisions, or those easily swayed by an offer of fast cash.
According to Project Prevention's statistics, so far this year 913 of the clients have been white, 570 black, and 223 Hispanic. That aside, the argument that because a potential solution isn't proportionally distributed across demographic groups it is undesirable illustrates the sixties cultural revolutionary mindset that for half a century has failed dismally in solving the very problems it helped create (skyrocketing divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, and crime rates, a plateauing high school graduation rate, a bottoming out of the poverty rate, a beginning of US trade deficits, etc). The progress that has been made in some of these areas has come from the right: welfare reform drastically cut into the growth rate of illegitimate births and throwing more people in jail sent reversed the trend of increasing crime that had been in effect from the sixties all the way into the mid-nineties.

Using the same line of reasoning, any viable strategy to lower crime or reduce poverty is also 'racist'. As blacks are seven times more likely to commit murder than others and three times as likely as whites to be in poverty. It's impossible to create an adequate response if we refuse to point out that a problem exists. Blaming the messenger only accentuates the problem. But Harris isn't even doing that--indeed, she's married to a black man and the four children she adopted from a drug addict are all black.

There is nothing evincing that Harris has a eugenic purpose in mind. Her position of advocacy is from the perspective of the child:
“My children didn’t deserve to be given drugs for nine months,” Harris said. “No innocent child deserves that.”
Yet drug use, especially of urban substances like cocaine, serves as a proxy for poverty and lower IQ. Critics are quick to suggest that the organization is eugenist:

“She makes it all about individual blame,” Paltrow said. “She creates the mythology that if you could just get a certain group of people to stop procreating, some social and economic problems would go away. … That’s the same economic argument that was used to justify eugenics.”
It is fallacious to argue that because something has been flawed in the past, all future variations of it are doomed to failure. Physicists once believed an aether region creating electromagnetic waves surrounded the earth. Last year South Korea's Dr. Hwang shocked the world when it was revealed that his claims on therapeutic cloning had been falsified. Should we also, then, reject Newtonian physics and future benefits derived from stem cell research?

Eugenics, if the definition is made broad enough to include Harris' work, has many potential benefits:

- Eliminating the high costs of birth and hospitalization that 'crack' babies require. This report puts normal costs at $2,000 and costs for children of crack users at $11,000.

- Closing the wealth gap. This is putatively the raison d'etre of many on the left, yet more effective than wealth transfers or progressive tax rates are tactics that encourage wealthy people to have more children and poor people to have fewer children. If the Rich's, worth $1 million, have one child and the Modest's, worth $100,000, have five children, upon passing the Rich scamp gets $1 million and each Modest urchin gets $20,000. Now flip the fecundity. The Rich's have five kids, the Modest's a single child. At death, each Rich kid gets $200,000 and the Modest kid gets $100,000. Isn't the latter situation the more palatable of the two?

- Assuaging some of the financial burden that the government currently carries. Drug users are more likely than the general public to lack medical insurance. So that $11,000, if a crack baby is born, gets picked up by the net taxpayer.

- Improves the client's quality of life. Choosing from tubal ligation, Norplant (long-term contraceptive), Depo-Provera (injected every three months), Essure (permanent sterilization), or intrauterine devices, the drug addict is not burdened with the financial responsibility of raising a child. In addition, she receives $300 for at least one year (with duration varying depending on the method of contraception used). [Feigning surprise] I am startled to read that the ACLU opposes this freedom of choice for addicts, who are in no way coerced into accepting payment for undergoing one of the methods of birth control, since Project Prevention provides another option for destitute women who do not have many.

Paltrow, head of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, also complains that the Harris approach shifts focus away from drug counseling. But that's a non sequitur, as Harris can create incentives for drug addicts to forgo having children while Paltrow creates incentives for them to stop using drugs.

You can donate through paypal to Harris' cause here.


What doesn't kill you... (June 29, 2006)

Immersing yourself in a moderate amount of filth might be a way to self-innoculate:
Gritty rats and mice living in sewers and farms seem to have healthier immune systems than their squeaky clean cousins that frolic in cushy antiseptic labs, two studies indicate. The lesson for humans: Clean living may make us sick.

The studies give more weight to a 17-year-old theory that the sanitized Western world may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, figures that people's immune systems aren't being challenged by disease and dirt early in life, so the body's natural defenses overreact to small irritants such as pollen.

The new studies, one of which was published Friday in the peer reviewed Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, found significant differences in the immune systems between euthanized wild and lab rodents.
This sounds plausible. It's basically the same concept we use for most shots--take small injections of the disease now so the body will build an immunity to more threatening levels in the future.

But I'm not yet convinced. I wonder about the relationship between these diseases and a population's median age. This study found the average age of incidence for rheumatoid arthritis to be 58 (and a decreasing trend in disease rate). The Western world is old and getting older. In addition to becoming top-heavy with entitlement obligations that will smother a shrinking youthful base, the West is collectively going to witness a steady increase in medical costs and a general decrease in the average health of its citizenry as it ages.

A bigger question mark exists in the actual subjects of the study:
Parker said his study has drawbacks because he can't be sure that the age of the wild and lab rodents are equivalent, although he estimates the ages based on weight. He also could not control what happened in the past to the wild rats to see if they had unusual diseases before being captured and killed.
The survival rate of lab rats compared to feral sewer rats strikes me as being of larger concern. If the average age of both cohorts was two, what proportion of lab rats make it to the age of two? What's the survival rate to the age of two for sewer rates? Lower than that of lab rats, presumably. What if in the wild, generally less healthy rats die off earlier, while in the lab all are preserved (outside of experimentation)? It seems to me that causation can only be, at best, speculated about. Immune strength might be coming from natural selection, not a Lamarckian enhancement of general immune system functionality.

A rough analogy: A la Battle Royale, 100 children are thrown into the tundra with the simultaneous release of rabid pit bulls in the area. Twenty children make it out alive, the rest are ripped to shreds. Those twenty are then put into an experiment testing athleticism along with twenty other randomly selected children from the area. Not surprisingly, the twenty children who managed to avoid rabid pit bulls in the tundra are in better shape than the twenty average kids.

This hardly suggests that being exposed to rabid pit bulls makes one more athletic. But over successive generations, if one line was constantly chased by pit bulls and another lived softly, the former would become more athletic. This might be a silly microcosm for the world today, where countries with higher mortality rates selecte for stronger immune systems among their populations. That takes us to the epigonic discussion of college kids after a night of Halo--are humans destroying themselves with medicine like an overgrown forest that's not allowed to burn from time to time?

To know for sure, Parker should separate lab rats into two cohorts at birth, with one being exposed to various diseases comparable to what would be experienced in the sewer, while the other is kept immaculate, and then at some point in the future compare the immune system functionality (and mortality rate) of the two groups.

++Addition++Parker already plans on doing just that:
Parker said he hopes to build a 50-foot artificial sewer for his next step, so that he could introduce the clean lab rats to an artificial dirty environment and see how and when the immunity was activated.
The data that this elicits will be more conclusive.

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