Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Editorial: Cancer of the mind

Lazy newspapers

The editorial today is derived from a number of health scares that made the Nigerian social networking headlines within the last 24 hours all to do with how the big C – cancer can be contracted.

From Twitter with a URL that linked to a 234Next.com online newspaper story the eye-catching title was ‘Grilled meat can cause cancer' and then through Facebook to a news story on The Nation Online Nigeria it was ‘Beware! Oral sex causes mouth cancer, Fed Govt warns.’

I will not contest the fact that the function of the newspapers is to inform, but when it comes to health scares, they might well be literate but they are far from numerate, their copy fails to apply reason and the thinking that informs their dissemination of that news story lacks objectivity as they plumb the depths of sensationalist incomprehensibility to produce unbelievable headlines.

Undeserving experts

The blame however cannot be placed entirely on the newspapers even though they are probably best advised to give health scares a wide berth just as readers are supposed to resist the urge to charge as bulls to the matador; propagating these stories until they go viral for the want of an appropriate term and an urban legend is born.

On the matter of grilled meat which is a delicacy called suya in Nigeria the medical expert on the occasion of World Cancer Day proffered that “Cancer cells thrive in an acid environment,” and with that seemingly categorical statement suggested, “A beef based diet is acidic, especially when burnt, so avoid suya and processed meats.”

The assertion about cancer cells was quite quickly debunked by doing a search on the most outlandish statement on Google which lead to http://www.snopes.com the website that pricks urban legends and provides incontrovertible fact over fiction, fable and fallacy.

Facts off course

The statement was false, it was attributed to Johns Hopkins University and circulated via email to the many gullible readers who passed it on without verifying the claims, it was so serious that Johns Hopkins University released a comprehensive email completely rubbishing each one of the claims including the one the medical expert with all the authority of a forum made for public consumption.

Now, indeed there are dangers in practicing oral sex and there is medical or scientific study that suggests the presence of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) might well make people susceptible to types of oral cancer.

Experts at quackery

That piece of information coming from the Chief Dental Officer of the Federal Ministry of Health was welcome and useful, however, when the expert veered off into the moralisation and societal consequences of the use of the mouth, she had tangentially departed the commonsense bounds of scientific rigour and defaulted to a quackery of the most impressionable kind reminiscent of snake-oil merchants and street-corner confidence tricksters.

The greater concern is if on the one hand medical experts cannot be trusted to properly validate studies through basic research and verifiable facts and on the other hand they fail to appreciate their limits of the expertise before delving into social commentary that has no basis in incontrovertible truth, fact and unimpeachable scientific data, we find ourselves at the mercy of seemingly esteemed professionals operating as quacks.

The cancer of the mind

In essence, not only do we face the danger of cancer in whatever form attacking the body; a cancer of the mind even leaves us more vulnerable to risk-prone, hardly meticulous and assuming people whose guesswork and absence of logic in the process of medical diagnosis might be more fatal than a double tap.

It is then no wonder that Nigeria suffers a serious health crisis if those with ultimate responsibility cannot ensure they get their facts right before they scare us witless with laughable fables.

Blacks after slavery

On a more educational note, I came across a link to a PBS documentary about Black in Latin America narrated by the esteemed Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who finds global fame in being the black man who on identifying himself as the owner of his own residence still ran afoul of the law in God’s own America.

He expounded on how slavery took Africans to Hispaniola, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Cuba and where the black race after slavery stands today and in comparison to the United States of America. The whole series makes really compelling viewing as it draws you in and the shocks you.

One rather interesting refrain suggested that long-term relationships were rarely formed in many cases between races but somehow sex appeared to be colour-blind. One should take the time to carefully view every single episode and if well-disposed a contribution to the service would also be welcome. You can find the homepage at Black in Latin America | PBS

Acknowledgements

The 234Next Newspaper piece titled ‘Grilled meat can cause cancer’ appeared in February and the news story published yesterday by The Nation Online Nigeria it was ‘Beware! Oral sex causes mouth cancer, Fed Govt warns.’

The Time Magazine did publish information about the study Oral Sex Can Add to HPV Cancer Risk in April 2007 and so did the BBC with the title Oral sex linked to mouth cancer as far back as February 2004; with a BBC3 documentary aired in January 2011 that stuck with the substance of the report.

The findings of the study itself were published in the New England Journal of Medicine with the title Case–Control Study of Human Papillomavirus and Oropharyngeal Cancer downloadable as a PDF file in May 2007.

The Snopes website debunked the “Cancer cells thrive in an acid environment” assertion by publishing the full false email attributed to Johns Hopkins University and the each point in that email for further rubbished by the university in a publication titled - Cancer Update Email -- It's a Hoax! And this as far back as April 2009.

The Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy as documented by Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia is just what it is.

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