Is Corruption Partly Responsible for the Ebola Crisis?

Guest post by Matthew Stephenson
[Cross-posted from The Global Anticorruption Blog.]

There’s been an interesting mini-debate over at the FCPA Blog about whether, or to what extent, corruption is partly responsible for the severity of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Richard Cassin, the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog, argued that it is. He made this argument initially in a post from this past August entitled “Ebola tragedy is also a story of graft.” He offered as evidence the following observations: (1) the WHO and other observers estimate that a very high percentage–perhaps up to 25%–of global spending on public health is lost to corruption; (2) the very high Ebola fatality rates in West Africa have been attributed in part to the lack of adequate intensive care facilities to administer the treatments; and (3) the countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak–Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria–are reputed to be highly corrupt, as indicated by their very poor scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Many critics who commented on Cassin’s initial post complained that the evidence offered did not in fact support the strong claim in the title that corruption has contributed significantly to the Ebola outbreak. In particular, the critics pointed out that: (1) the fact that a great deal of public health spendinggenerally is lost to corruption does not actually tell us whether corruption was a major factor in the particular case of the Ebola outbreak, and (2) the low ranking of the affected countries on the CPI likewise–even if we concede that the CPI is a decent measure of actual corruption–does not indicate that corruption caused (in any significant way) the Ebola outbreak to be as lethal as it has been; at most it shows a correlation that might be explained by any number of other factors.

Cassin responded with a second post last month in which he rebutted the critics. He acknowledged that while one can never establish with “scientific certainty” that corruption has a causal effect on the severity of the Ebola outbreak, there is powerful circumstantial evidence that corruption is a “gateway” to this and other public health crises (as well as other problems like terrorism and crime), because it siphons off public resources. Cassin cites to a couple of research papers that purport to show that corruption in general has adverse impacts on public health, in particular because it adversely affects access to clean water and sanitation.

Continue reading

Tomorrow: A Conversation with Jim Doyle

A Conversation with Jim Doyle
October 15, 2014 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Room 1019, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

JimDoyleJoin the Harvard Health Law Society for a lunch talk with former Attorney General and Governor of Wisconsin Jim Doyle. Come hear about the former governor’s experiences tackling public health issues through state politics and join us for a Q&A session about health policy, health law careers, and politics. Governor Jim Doyle served as the 44th governor of Wisconsin and is recognized as a national leader in health care, energy, biotechnology, and many other areas. He has worked closely with the White House, high-ranking officials, and other governors. He currently serves as counsel for Foley & Lardner and is teaching a class at the Harvard School of Public Health this fall entitled “Health Policy, Leadership, and Politics at the State.”

Co-sponsored by the Center for Health Law Policy and Innovation and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics.

State Concussion Legislation: Variable Implementation

By Christine Baugh

The most recent issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available for free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics) included several articles examining state concussion laws. One theme that arose across the articles is that although concussion-related legislation is on the books in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the extent to which it is creating an improvement in youth and adolescent athlete health outcomes is unclear.

In their article titled “State experiences implementing youth sports concussion laws: challenges, successes, and lessons for evaluating impact” Kerri McGowan Lowrey and Stephanie Morain interviewed stakeholders (e.g., officials at state departments of public health, state athletic associations) at a majority of states with concussion laws in order to understand how the laws had been implemented. Although previous research in the area (see, for example: Hosea Harvey’s piece in the American Journal of Public Health) presented concussion legislation as relatively homogenous, McGowan Lowrey and Morain’s approach provided critical insight. They found that while the state laws are relatively uniform in their construction, there is substantial variation in their implementation. In particular, McGowan Lowrey and Morain reported variation in compliance with the statutes, variation in how much stakeholders were included during formative stages in the legislation’s composition, and variation in what constituted concussion education.

In another article in the issue, my colleagues Emily Kroshus, Alexandra Bourlas, Kaitlyn Perry, and I specifically examined the concussion education and acknowledgement provisions of state concussion laws. This investigation was conducted in two parts: first we examined what the statute mandated and then we examined what the high school athletic association and/or department of education in that state actually provided for education. Similar to McGowan Lowrey and Morain, we found that implementation did not always match statute. In some promising cases the education provided exceeded the information minimally required by statute. In other situations, the concussion information was provided in such a way that it was required to be returned with a parent signature. In cases like this, compliance with one part of the statute (mandating acknowledgement of receipt of information) may have been compromising another (providing concussion education). Although the education and acknowledgement tenets were relatively similar across states, more heterogeneity was found in the implementation of these aspects of the statutes.

In general, these two studies suggest that the approach for examining statute, and particularly its efficacy, needs to be designed to address implementation stage information. Strict examination of the statutory language obscures critical implementation-level differences. These concussion-related statutes, enacted now in every state, are ostensibly supposed to reduce risk and improve athlete health outcomes. The extent to which they are reliably accomplishing this goal is unclear. What is clear is that implementation of the laws, and enforcement in cases where schools do not abide by statute, are necessary precursors to consistent efficacy. Although it is important that all states have taken steps toward protecting the health and safety of youth and adolescent athletes, approving a statute is not the final step toward this aim. Further research is needed to understand what health effects the current laws are having and critically where improvements can be made in this important area of public health law.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Ebola, Flight Bans, and Politics

By Zachary Shapiro

It seems like the debate over banning flights from West African Ebola stricken countries has become instantly political, with many Conservatives calling for a flight ban. See here. One author, in response to these calls, points to the history of Liberia’s relationship with the United States as a reason that the US should not consider a flight ban. Arguments against a flight ban that are not based on public health principles provide fodder for the talking heads and individuals who want to see this as a political issue.

The real question should be how much good a flight ban would do to halt the spread of Ebola to the United States. Many public health experts, from the CDC to the WHO, do not think a ban would make us safer.

Ebola is only contagious when the patient is symptomatic, and the first symptom is almost always a fever. If a patient does not have a fever, and is asymptomatic, they are not contagious. Thus they do not provide a serious risk of infecting other people, even in the confined quarters of an airplane. This makes temperature screening especially important. This easy screening tool is already in use at airports in Ebola affected Countries.  Continue reading

Ebola Update: Why Don’t We Seem to Care?

By Deborah Cho

It’s been over half a year since the beginning of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, yet the number of cases and deaths from the disease continue to rise.  The total case count as of September 29, 2014 is 6,574 and total deaths are at 3,091.  Even so, the international response, as a whole, seems to be lacking.  As I lived near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia this past summer, I was acutely aware of the Ebola epidemic’s magnitude while it had the media’s attention.  The attention given was similar to that given to a car accident on the side of a road as onlookers drive on by without stopping to offer help.  Unfortunately, it was quite clear that aid efforts were woefully inadequate and that the disease would continue to spread rapidly without a stronger response.  It seemed that though our curiosity about this virus was at an all-time high, our national concern for the epidemic and its casualties were extremely minimal other than in the brief moments when we were faced with prospect of flying in two of our own infected citizens.  Continue reading

Are we appropriately framing the risks of brain trauma in contact sports?

By Christine Baugh

The recent concussion and sport special issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics: HERE), edited by new Bill of Health contributor David Orentlichter,  includes a number of important works discussing legal and ethical issues related to mild traumatic brain injury sustained through sport. One of the most thought provoking articles in the issue is a piece by Kathleen Bachynski and Daniel Goldberg titled Youth Sports & Public Health: Framing Risks of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in American Football and Ice Hockey. This piece delves into the important issues of cultural and normative influences on the framing (and thus public understanding) of the risk of brain injury in sport. At the heart of the paper is the assertion that, “The framing of risk is not a neutral, apolitical enterprise,” and that in the United States and Canada highly influential institutional actors such as football and ice hockey leagues have played a formative role in the cultural valuation of the risks inherent in these activities.

Bachynski and Goldberg provide a variety of examples where the overarching questions such as “Are contact sports too risky?” or “What is an appropriate level of risk?” are deferred for easier alternatives. Addressing more focal issues are: State concussion laws which mandate secondary prevention measures, advancement in protective equipment which promises to mitigate risk of injury, rule changes made by sports leagues which aim to make inherently dangerous activities somewhat less dangerous. Rather than addressing the broader risk questions, the implicit assumption in these more focused efforts is that risks are acceptable as long as they are managed. Through what Bachynski and Goldberg assert are concerted efforts on behalf of major stakeholders (e.g., major sports leagues), this has been the predominant frame for risk assessment in contact sports.

Unfortunately, this method of framing risks is not without consequences. Bachynski and Goldberg argue that this framing may alter our understanding of the scope of the problem as well as the most appropriate interventions or solutions. This frame may also inappropriately downplay the need to address the broader moral, social, and political questions that arise from concussions in contact sports. For example, the authors pose the following question, “At what age can players consent to risks of head trauma and associated elevated risks of chronic degenerative neurological disease?”

Answering this question could require a complex weighing of the scientific evidence of the long-term risk of neurodegeneration and balancing it against a variety of factors such as the paternalistic desire to control the population’s ability to partake in self-injurious behavior and the need to protect an individual’s autonomy. (We do, after all, regularly let individuals partake in other dangerous activities—e.g., downhill skiing or driving a car.) We would need to think about questions such as: Should we treat the risk of brain injury differently than bodily injury? Should the risk of delayed or chronic injury be weighed differently given humans’ known difficulty in assessing risk in the distant future? What does scientific evidence have to say about the nature of the risk across age ranges? However, under the current framing these questions are not the ones being addressed. Bachynski and Goldberg’s article elucidates the first step toward addressing concussions from sport: appropriately framing the problem.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Vaccination Policy and Public Trust

By Kelsey Berry

The conflict between a physician’s dual roles as an agent of population health and an agent of his or her patient is exemplified in the classical debate about ethical vaccination policy. Whereas studies have demonstrated the role of vaccination in protecting public health at negligible risk to individuals, “vaccine hesitancy” and non-acceptance among parents has increasingly contributed to vaccination delay and refusal. Recent domestic measles outbreaks and increased numbers of reported infections in 2011 and 2013 gesture to the public health impacts of even small decrements in uptake, especially in a globalized setting where the infection can travel easily.[1]

The FORUM at Harvard School of Public Health recently hosted an event on vaccination, exploring through an expert panel the drivers of public perception about vaccination and ways of restoring public trust in vaccination. Panelists discussed the need for research into the values and concerns of those who exhibit vaccine hesitancy, and development of effective modes of communication, tailored to individuals’ concerns, that will allow trained physicians to effectively guide choice. Notably, the clinical encounter was brought up several times as fertile ground for both reestablishing trust and promoting vaccine uptake effectively.

Reestablishing public trust in public health interventions may be key to avoiding conflicts between physicians’ duties to both population health and patients/guardians. If the patient/guardian ultimately expresses support for vaccination, as a result of persuasive information supplied by the physician, the conflict seems to disappear. However, what about the case in which a patient expresses support for vaccination as a policy, but does not support the use of vaccination in the case of his or her own child (assuming for simplicity that there are no medical contraindications to vaccination in this child’s case)? This scenario brings out a possible duality in the held views of patient/guardians. There seem to be two competing views within one patient/guardian: first, the view that we as a society should promote population health through vaccination, and second the view that one’s own person/child should be exempt from vaccination. Continue reading

A Lack of Pep for PrEP

By Emily Largent

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) recently conducted a survey of gay and bisexual men in the U.S. focusing on attitudes, knowledge, and experiences with HIV/AIDS.  The survey results, released Thursday, can be found here.  I was most interested in the finding that only a quarter of those surveyed know about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).

PrEP (brand name Truvada) is a combination of two medicines (tenofovir and emtricitabine) that has, if taken consistently, been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are high risk by up to 92%.  The FDA approved an indication for the use of Truvada “in combination with safer sex practices for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV-1 in adults at high risk” in 2012.  The U.S. Public Health Service released the first comprehensive clinical practice guidelines in May of this year. Continue reading

How much promise do safety-net ACOs really hold?

The Health Affairs blog recently published an important write-up of the status of safety net ACOs. Therein, authors James Maxwell, Michael Bailit, Rachel Toby and Christine Barron offer five “key observations regarding emerging safety-net ACOs and suggest broad policy implications” which are drawn from what appears to be a fairly extensive research project including “site visits and telephone interviews with 66 safety-net ACO leaders and state officials conducted over the last two years in 14 states.” Generally, they leave the reader with an optimistic impression of safety-net ACOs efforts to achieve population health – which contrasts with my previous post on Bill of Health.

In short, the authors offer the following observations:

  1. State policy is a key factor in the formation of safety-net ACOs.
  2. Both health policy experts and those involved in forming ACOs consider health homes, high-cost case management, and integrated behavioral health to be priority delivery system transformations for ACOs in the safety-net.
  3. It takes money to save money: upfront capital and financial flexibility are required for investment in delivery system transformations.
  4. Safety-net ACOs are adopting payment and delivery system transformations incrementally.
  5. Building on a long-standing recognition of how non-medical factors impact health outcomes and utilization, safety-net ACOs are addressing social determinants of health through community partnerships.

The entirety of the post is well-written and I encourage folks to check it out for themselves. My concerns about the ACO model do still largely hold, however. While the authors of this blog highlight four states (MA, OR, AL and MN) with policies on the books to encourage creativity in safety-net ACO design, that leaves 46 others without such supportive legislation. In short, I think we are still working at the margins here. Moreover, I worry that the authors have chosen a definition of ACO that goes well beyond what CMS considers to be an ACO and in so doing have spotlighted “bright lights” of the health care delivery landscape that may not have the metrics and results to support their claims at innovation. The authors offer us little information about what kind of improvements either in quality of care or health outcomes these safety-net ACOs have been able to achieve. (Meanwhile, CMS recently released the latest quality metrics on the Pioneer and Shared Savings ACOs they sanction and monitor.)

The bottom line is this: safety-net ACOs, like all ACOs, certainly hold promise. The question is whether we will translate this promise into systems-level change.

Live Blogging: Post-Trial Responsibilities Conference, Session 2

By Zachary Shapiro

Hello from the Post-Trial Responsibilities conference! I will be live blogging session 2: where speakers will be providing important perspectives on PTA. Barbra Bierer is monitoring the discussion.

We started with Richard Klein calling in from FDA:

Richard is talking about post-trial responsibilities. He points out that there is a justice issue here with ensuring access to health care and up to date interventions. He points out that while the FDA can encourage Post-Trial Access (PTA), it has no authority to require or ensure it. He points to moral authority, rather than legal. Foreign trials, however, are a different story, as the FDA has sway over protocol applications that are submitted in the US. Richard begins highlighting some specific considerations for protocol drafters and IRBs: particularly focusing on determining monitoring plans, as well as figuring out financial responsibilities for the provision of PTA.

He moves on to highlight that there is more of a moral obligation than a legal obligation. FDA is supportive of the provision of PTA. He believes that enthusiasm must be tempered, as there are situations when PTA is not appropriate. These include studies that have significant safety concerns, studies of bio-markers as well as validation studies that do not specifically examine safety and effectiveness. There are also situations where PTA is simply not feasible, particularly if additional drugs do not exist (one thinks of the recent Ebola treatment), if there is insufficient safety data, or if there is no practical capacity or resources to provide safety monitoring. We must also be aware of financial limitations, especially for start-up biotech firms that might not have deep pockets. Continue reading

Defining Public Health Emergencies

[Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog.]

What makes a public health threat an emergency? In this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, Rebecca Haffajee, Michelle M. Mello and I ask this question in connection with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s decision last spring to declare the opioid-addiction epidemic a “public health emergency.”  In our Perspective we do not question the seriousness of the opioid-addiction problem; or the specific policies Patrick implemented. Rather, we ask whether the epidemic warranted the invocation of emergency powers.

In the years since 9/11, in the name of public health legal preparedness, public health officials and scholars have focused much attention on the need for so-called emergency laws to strengthen the response to a public health emergency. Although the exact parameters of emergency laws vary, they typically allow for the suspension of some or most ordinary legal procedures and protections. Thus when an emergency is declared, the rules of the legal system are suspended. Executives can take action without awaiting legislative approval, or following the typical administrative process. Judicial review may also be significantly curtailed. As my co-authors and I discuss, this has enormous costs, not only on the individuals and entities whose interests are affected, but on the credibility of public health officials who must ultimately depend on the public’s trust. If the public comes to believe that declarations are issued too easily, its support for public health may diminish. In addition, in the absence of legislative and judicial checks, executive powers may easily be turned against vulnerable populations, as they have been too often in history.

Yes precisely because emergency laws are designed to give officials flexibility to respond to unexpected crises, for which existing policies are insufficient, public health emergency laws grant officials extremely broad, usually unreviewable, discretion to decide what constitutes a “public health emergency.” For example, the Massachusetts law that Governor Patrick invoked provides no definition of a public health emergency whatsoever, leaving its determination solely to the Governor’s judgment. Likewise no definition appears in the 2005 federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREPA), which preempts most state tort claims against and a vaccines and countermeasures once the Secretary of Health and Human Services declares an emergency.  Continue reading

What Is (or Isn’t) a Public Health “Emergency”?

In this week’s issue of New England Journal of Medicine, Michelle Mello, Wendy Parmet, and I write about what constitutes — or should constitute — a “public health emergency”. The law provides for emergency declarations, which suspend ordinary legal standards and processes in order to avoid catastrophe, on many levels (international, federal, state, local) and in public health or more general contexts. We focus our discussion at the state level, using Governor Deval Patrick’s declaration of the opioid-addiction crisis as a public health emergency as an opportunity to explore the appropriate parameters of these powers. My co-authors and I don’t debate the public health significance of opioid addiction in the Commonwealth, nor the specific measures ordered pursuant to this declaration. We do question the expanding use of public health emergency powers beyond the traditional arenas of infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and acts of bioterrorism into new territories, such as injuries and chronic disease.

State laws provide governors and their top health officers with considerable latitude in declaring public health emergencies. But the powers available upon such declarations are extraordinary and should be wielded with care. My co-authors and I identify three key criteria that seem to be enshrined in the spirit of public health emergency laws: “the situation is exigent, the anticipated or potential harm is calamitous, and the harm cannot be avoided through ordinary procedures.” In the absence of these criteria, the invocation of such emergencies may raise heightened concerns — for instance, if ensuing orders involve serious infringements on individual and private business rights — and could result in a loss of public trust in health officials and legitimacy in public health laws. We caution against setting such troubling precedent.

Read more in our Perspective, entitled “What Is a Public Health “Emergency”?“.

What’s to become of population health?

When the accountable care organization (ACO) model was initially conceptualized, many in the health policy world hoped it could provide a platform for real transformation of US health care.

Among the ACO model’s most promising innovations was its explicit orientation towards achieving “the Triple Aim.” First articulated by Don Berwick and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), the Triple Aim is a strategy for optimizing the health care delivery system and achieving the best of all worlds. It outlines three goals: high quality health care, lower costs, and population health. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services adopted this goal and still describes a version of the Triple Aim on its webpage titled “Innovation.”

Continue reading

Asking the Right Right Question About Football – Why do Some NFL Players Abuse Their Partners?

The national press is buzzing after TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s barbaric assault of his then-fiancee, Janay Rice.  Much of the spotlight of the coverage shined on the NFL’s handling of the abuse, and perhaps even more time was spent yesterday questioning Ms. Rice’s decision to stay in her relationship with her husband.  These are certainly valid questions to ask, and there is something to be said about the raised “awareness” of domestic violence in the aftermath of its players deplorable acts of violence.  I would argue the discussion has been more valuable than any awareness raised by NFL teams wearing pink during breast cancer awareness month.

If we want to best-capitalize on the awareness raised by these acts of violence, however, the conversation needs to shift from harm reduction (“why did she stay?”) to harm prevention.  To illustrate: when faced with the prevalence of lung cancer, do we ask “Why does the cancer patient continue to smoke?”  Yes, to some extent, we do, but we first addressed the causal inquiry, “What causes cancer?”, and in order to prevent the next generation from becoming addicted to nicotine, millions have been invested and continue to be invested in educating the public (and particularly youth) about the harms of tobacco use, and legislative action has been taken to prevent the harms caused by tobacco use.

Domestic violence (or intimate partner violence), like lung cancer, is a public health issue.  This is not a novel or controversial statement.  According to a 2010 CDC report, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner, and according to a 2003 report, the national costs of health services for intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking is nearly $4.1 billion.  The CDC’s website states:  “The goal is to stop IPV [intimate partner violence] before it begins. There is a lot to learn about how to prevent IPV.”

It is time that the health care community take the CDC’s statement seriously and work collaboratively across law, public health, and medicine to research, propose, and implement innovative solutions to this perpetual epidemic, that costs thousands of lives in the United States each year.  Unlike some other organizations aimed at addressing public health issues, organizations whose goal is to prevent domestic violence are often grossly under-funded.  Perhaps the most apropos inquiry or statement to put to the NFL, the NFL Player’s Union, or other public health institutions that agree that domestic violence prevention is important is one capture by a classic football film: “SHOW ME THE MONEY.”

[Ed. Note: This post reflects the author's views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

To Watch: Rural Enrollment on Exchanges

As we gear up for a second year of exchange marketplace enrollment, one issue to keep an eye on is the success we have at getting people who live in rural areas onto the healthcare rolls.  As pointed out in today’s Kaiser Health News write-up (here), there is potential for the ACA to increase rural health disparities, even while it gets more people insured, because many of the efforts to encourage enrollment–think navigators, enrollment centers, advertising, and outreach–just work better in urban areas.  For some reading on this issue, see the Kaiser Family Foundation’s posting here, the HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration’s report here, and the Rural Health Foundation’s roundup here.

Ebola and the Return of Quarantine

[Ed. Note: Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog.]

Last month’s riots in an Ebola-infected slum in Monrovia, Liberia demonstrated anew the perils of relying on quarantine, and similar highly coercive public health laws, to contain highly contagious diseases.

At first blush, Ebola viral disease (EVD) is exactly the type of disease for which broad quarantines (more precisely, sanitary cordons) would seem appropriate. Transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, EVD can spread rapidly through a community, as it has done in several West African nations. Although experimental treatments and vaccines offer promise for the future, they have not yet been shown to be effective in humans; nor are they readily available. As a result, health officials are forced to rely on tried and true public health strategies, such as identifying cases, isolating and treating them with strict infection control measures, and monitoring their contacts. Needless to say, doing so is very challenging and very expensive, especially in highly urbanized areas, with weak health systems.

Given the challenges, health officials and government leaders are often tempted to call in the troops, and rely on more heavy-handed measures, such as imposing sanitary cordons around whole towns or neighborhoods, quarantining those who have had contact with patients, and restricting travel into and out of affected regions. Although the impetus for these measures is understandable given the magnitude of the EVD threat, history suggests that such highly coercive tactics frequently backfire. Like the military-style show of force employed by the police department in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this summer, highly coercive public health measures can undermine the public’s trust in authorities. Thus, rather than reduce travel, identify contacts, and come forward if they show symptoms, individuals are more apt to try to leave affected areas and avoid the health care system. Or they riot, as they did in Monrovia and China during the SARS outbreak. In any case, the problem is made worse not better. Continue reading

The Expressive Dimension of Donor Deferral

By Dov Fox

The Guardian and L.A. Times are the latest major news organizations to decry trans-Atlantic restrictions on blood donation by men who have sex with men (MSM). The case against such categorical bans has been reignited by an influential piece that Bill of Health editor Glenn Cohen recently published with co-authors Jeremy Feigenbaum and Eli Adashi in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Cohen, Feigenbaum, and Adashi make a powerful case why sexual orientation should be just one component among others used to assess the risk that blood donors might spread HIV.[i]

But their argument elides exactly what is—and isn’t—wrong with excluding men who have sex with men from donating blood. At times they suggest the longstanding U.S. ban reflects “outdated homophobic perceptions.” Yet they acknowledge that it was “well-intentioned and guided by a need to protect the integrity of the national blood supply.” Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration that enacted the lifetime MSM ban solicited guidance from the National Gay Task Force whose recommendations were adopted into Red Cross blood collection procedures.[ii] It’s unlikely the policy was motivated by animus as opposed to concern for public health.

Elsewhere, the authors imply the policy’s chief offense is that it deprives MSM of a crucial “civic opportunity.” But giving blood, even if it shares the life-saving potential of military service and registration as an organ donor, is not typically regarded as a duty of citizenship tantamount to voting or jury service.[iii] So it’s not its effects on those it excludes that makes the donor ban so bad.

The best reason to let low-risk gay men give blood lies in the demeaning message that excluding them expresses, what I’ve called the expressive dimension of donor deferralContinue reading

Parental Consent for Youth Contact Sports Participation

As we enter into the fall sports season, it’s unlikely that a week will go by where we don’t hear the current buzzword in sports community: concussion. Whether in reference to an acute player injury, an untimely death, new or ongoing litigation, or rule changes in sport, the athletic community and the public are increasingly aware of the impacts of these brain injuries. Although much of the media attention is directed toward college and professional athletes, youth and high school athletes significantly outnumber their older counterparts and it is thought that they take longer to recover from these injuries.

A recent publication by Mannings and colleagues surveyed 369 parents of 5-15 year old full-contact football players in order to assess the parents’ understanding of concussion (1). Although the study does have limitations, its finding could have important implications. The parents surveyed were often missing critical information about concussions. For example, less than half of parents correctly identified that concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Additionally, none of the parents surveyed correctly identified all of the symptoms of concussion queried in the study. Although it is mandated by statute in the majority of states (2) that parents and/or athletes are provided with information about concussions prior to sports participation, the extent to which the information provided (normally in the form of an information sheet) is read, understood, or retained is not well understood.

Sports participation is associated with a myriad of positive physical, psychological, and social outcomes. However, it also comes with the risk of injury, including concussion. For youth and adolescents, parents play a critical role. Most often, children and adolescents rely on parental consent to participate in sports. Given parents’ role as decision-makers, and the finding of Mannings and colleagues, an important ethical issue that needs to be addressed is what level of knowledge should be required for parents to provide informed consent for their child to participate in inherently risky activities such as contact sports?

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]