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EDITORIAL: Seven words and the CDC

York Dispatch









The Washington Post reported Friday that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been told they cannot use these seven words in documents being prepared for next year's budget.

Other sources say leaving out those words was just a recommendation, a suggestion from higher levels of the federal government as the CDC and other branches of the Department of Health and Human Services work on budget documents. In an email to the agency's employees on Saturday night, CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald noted the media report and wrote; "I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work."

So, not exactly a ban, just a recommendation to avoid using certain words when trying to get funds for science and medical services and research through the Republican Congress and the Trump administration.

Sure, no problem. Discuss the LGBT community without saying transgender. Discuss the health of pregnant women without saying fetus. Discuss inner-city populations, seniors or children in public schools without saying diversity, entitlement or vulnerable. Discuss climate change research without saying science-based or evidence-based.

Or, you know, just don't discuss any of those issues. No need for the center charged with overseeing disease care and medical treatments for the whole country to worry about those things, right?

After all, ignoring issues certain members of the government don't want to deal with has worked very well in the past.

The CDC first made note of young, homosexual men in San Francisco dying from rare forms of pneumonia and skin cancer in 1981, according to the Allentown-based Fighting AIDS Continuously Together. By the time President Ronald Reagan said the word AIDS in public for the first time in 1985, more than 13,000 people in the U.S. had died — mostly gay men and drug users. By the time Reagan apologized for his neglect of the crisis in 1990, nearly 50,000 Americans had died. Today, more than 636,000 Americans have died from AIDS, and nearly 1 million are living with HIV infection.

Did anyone forbid Reagan from saying the word AIDS? Of course not. He didn't talk about the crisis in its infant stages because it was an uncomfortable subject dealing with gay sex and intravenous drug use. By the time Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released his report on HIV and AIDS in 1986, thousands of people had been infected because they didn't know how the disease was transmitted.

The CDC can work around the seven words. Officials can write about mixed populations instead of diversity, at-risk people instead of vulnerable. Entitlements can go by their given names, Social Security and Medicare. Transgender people are going through gender reidentification, fetuses are embryos. 

And really, science-based and evidence-based are different words for plain facts.

But it would be so much easier if the scientists at government agencies could just say what they mean without worrying about triggering a backlash from the GOP politicians who hold their funding.

When people working for the government have to concern themselves more with exactly which words they're using for purely political reasons and less with the effects their research could have on the country, that's a bad situation for everyone. Self-censorship can be even worse than real censorship, because CDC officials are being put in a position of trying to read the minds of higher-ups to see which words will keep their funding coming and which will cut off their important work.

If politicians are so delicate that the use of seven words will trigger them to cut funding for work that is important to everyone's health, it's time to rethink the politicians, not the words. 

Yes, words can hurt. But taking away those words hurts more.