Return of the Vanquished

Via Instapundit comes a story about the return of a once-vanquished nutritional disease, rickets, due to people not watching their children’s nutrition because they assumed that breast feeding would supply all the nutrients needed. This fits a similar pattern in which health concerns that disappeared in most of the West by the 1960s have begun to reemerge. 

In all these cases, the cause is an exaggerated concern for an unrelated health matter that generates unintended side effects. 

Iodine deficiency in Australia. Bedbugs in America. These and other instances all have one thing in common. People stop using the techniques that wiped out these problems in the past, usually in an attempt to reduce some other tenuous and usually hypothetical harm. 

Iodine deficiency showed up in Australia after the government launched a radical low-salt campaign. Since most people receive most of their iodine from iodized salt, reducing salt intake reduced their iodine intake significantly, especially in children who ate salt-free school food. 

Bedbugs have returned to America following the ending of using pesticides for insect control, due to exaggerated fears over human side-effects. Nowadays, exterminators use baits almost exclusively. Unfortunately, bedbugs only eat blood, so unless we adopt a strategy of doping hobos and having them hang around infected areas so the bedbugs can bite them, we really don’t have a counter. In the old days, we eradicated bedbugs quickly by fumigation. Nowadays, if you get bedbugs in your house, expect a month-long battle to get rid of them. 

Many different factors cause widespread Vitamin D deficiency. Exaggerated concerns over skin cancer caused people to avoid sunlight and thus suppressed their bodies’ natural production of Vitamin D. Exaggerated concerns over fats led people to stop drinking Vitamin D-fortified milk. Vegetarianism, especially veganism, cuts people off from natural sources of Vitamin D. The maniacal pressure for breast feeding cut off sources of Vitamin D in infant formula. 

We seem to lack the ability to process the concept of tradeoffs when talking about health issues. We seem to gravitate to the idea that something is either all good or all bad with no in between. Breast feeding is a prime example of this. Anyone who has been pregnant in the last few years can tell you about the enormous pressure brought on women to breast feed. Part of this pressure comes in the form of a wild exaggeration of both the benefits of breast feeding and the harm of not doing so. Advocates and educators for breast feeding seem to believe that introducing the least hint of doubt in the form of a discussion of tradeoffs will drive women away from breast feeding. In such a high-pressure one-sided information environment one can easily see how women might be totally unaware of any negative consequences of breast feeding. 

Most individual health studies focus on one particular effect and ignore others. For example, numerous studies look at sun exposure only in regard to its effects on the health of the skin. They ignore the effects of reduced Vitamin D on a host of other illnesses. Studies that try to measure a wide variety of health consequences of a wide variety of health choices return much more murky conclusions than do more-focused studies. These results tell us that few simple answers exist about optimizing our health. 

A factor that helps in one area can hurt in another. Too much of something is as bad a too little. The difference between a nutrient and a poison is merely one of dosage. (For example, people have killed themselves with Vitamin D overdoses.) 

In the end, biology is about a balance of tradeoffs. Our public debate and education on health are about anything but tradeoffs.