Hope Public Health

Move Upstream


“Many children in this area have families that are unable to care for them. Fortunately, there are orphanages here in town that are able to care for small babies until their families are able to care for them again. The situation here is desperate, and many of the babies brought to the orphanages are severely malnourished.”                                                                        Phil and Laura Olaniyi

            Laura and Phil formerly lived in Durango but moved to Mozambique where they are starting an orphanage, “Heart for the Needy”. Let’s look at some of the statistics for this East African country.

Mozambique is one of the fastest growing countries in the world; women there have an average of almost 6 children. The country’s infant mortality is tragic, with 83 of every thousand children dying before they reach one year of age. This is one reason for the high fertility, since couples usually don’t choose to have small families until they know their children will live to adulthood. The maternal mortality rate is also very high. The average per capita income is only $3 a day.

These statistics don’t begin to tell the anguish of a mother who cannot care for her child, or the grief of a family who cannot care for a baby whose mother died in childbirth. Fortunately there are compassionate people such as Laura and Phil to care for these abandoned children. Even though they are far away I feel close to them in a way since I have worked with both of them—and I helped when Laura was born.

I agree with a statement Laura made on her blog: “Let’s be honest for a second, though. An orphanage is only putting a Band-Aid on the real problem – poverty & oppression.”

I admire Laura for being so perceptive, but I want to add another cause of “the real problem”—undesired fertility. In Mozambique only a quarter of girls are enrolled in secondary school, and only 11% of married women use modern contraception. The fertility of non-educated women is twice that of women with secondary school education, 6.8 and 3.4, respectively. This is an example of the wonderful power of educating women!

In the developing world young women often have very little power or control over their lives. Older men approach them with offers of money or coveted goods in exchange for sex. Rape is also common. The story of such an unfortunate young woman is told in the short YouTube video “Not Yet Rain”, filmed in Ethiopia.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Karen Shragg has used a similar expression in the title of her book: “Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation”. In it Karen points out that so many of the problems we face, including climate change, ocean fisheries depletion, and extinction of species, are caused by increasing human overpopulation. Similarly, the need for orphanages is (in part) a symptom of unwanted fertility.

I have two friends who live in Bayfield who spent part of their childhoods in orphanages. Both are productive citizens who might not have survived if there had not been institutions to care for them as small children. In addition, relatives adopted a boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was 3 years old. Mason’s birth parents died when he was small, so his grandmother took over his care. Unfortunately, she was unable to meet his needs then he was well cared for in an orphanage. Mason has joined a loving family in Durango who are giving him opportunities that would be impossible in Congo.

Orphanages provide a wonderful opportunity to care for some of the world’s most vulnerable children. There are few orphanages left in the U.S.A., but in developing countries there are many, and there is much need. As Laura points out, however, orphanages are just a Band-Aid for the real problems—terrible poverty, low status of women and many unplanned pregnancies.

We should “move upstream” to get at the root of the problem rather than just using Band-Aids. Steps that will help include supporting international family planning organizations such as the Population Media Center, and help the Population Connection terminate the Helms amendment, which restricts government funded agencies from even talking about abortion.

Until we have solved the problem of unplanned pregnancies, the only humane action is to care for orphans the way Laura and Phil are. I am sending them a check to help them as they build Heart for the Needy. What a boon it will be for orphans in Mozambique!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Media Public Health

Evaluate “Facts” Carefully


Image courtesy of

In 1999 the CDC listed “Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century”. Family Planning is one. Another is “Fluoridation of Drinking Water to Prevent Dental Caries”.

The CDC report summarizes the science: “Fluoridation of community drinking water is a major factor responsible for the decline in dental caries (tooth decay) during the second half of the 20th century…. Although other fluoride-containing products are available, water fluoridation remains the most equitable and cost-effective method of delivering fluoride to all members of most communities, regardless of age, educational attainment, or income level.”

Last month three well-respected Durango citizens collaborated on an op-ed for the Opinion page of the Herald. Unfortunately much of what they wrote is not well supported. I know and respect all three—but feel that they didn’t do their homework well.

The first author wrote: “The fluoride we add to Durango’s water supply is Hydrofluorosilicic Acid.” In December I asked the City’s staff what is used to fluoridate Durango’s water supply and received this answer: “Dr. Grossman: The fluoride additive utilized is Sodium Fluoride (NaF) with a finished water fluoride concentration goal of 0.70 ppm.” Message #1: ask questions.

The assertion is made that water fluoridation causes arrested brain development, ADD and ADHD, decreased IQ, autism, learning disabilities and cancer. Writer #1 states: “More than one in six children are effected [sic] by these conditions.” What are the sources for this information? Presumably one journal, “Fluoride: Quarterly Journal of the International Society for Fluoride Research”. I find articles in this journal to be strongly biased—they all seem to be against fluoridation.

How can one tell if a scientific journal is reputable, since many periodicals seem to be trustworthy, but are not? First of all, look to see if articles in it are peer reviewed. If they are not, the information is less credible. I check one thing before deciding on the credibility of a medical journal: is the journal listed in the National Library of Medicine? “Fluoride” is not.

The second writer, a dentist, states “…I have never been able to distinguish which children (or adults) grew up in a fluoridated community or a non-fluoridated community.” This is not the sort of information with which to make educated decisions that affect the public’s health. Rather than just an impression, it would be more believable to have records of the rates of cavities where water is fluoridated and where it isn’t.

I admire this writer for checking with the Cochrane review on water fluoridation. These reviews are the standard for evaluation of the quality of medical knowledge. He quotes: “There is very little contemporary evidence, meeting the review’s inclusion criteria, that has evaluated the effectiveness of water fluoridation for the prevention of caries.” Message #2: the research on the effectiveness of water fluoridation is old, but still valid.

The third writer states that fluoride is “…an endocrine disruptor that is wreaking havoc with our thyroid glands….” This interests me for two reasons. The topic of endocrine disruptors is important, as there are many (especially organic) chemicals that cause subtle but serious problems. Additionally, I have taken thyroid medication for decades. I did some research to find out if there is good evidence that fluoride is an endocrine disruptor.

What I found is that, indeed, preliminary evidence suggests that fluoride may have an effect on thyroid function. Some of the information is from England, where most salt is not iodized. Fluoride may make lack of iodine (which is essential for thyroid function) worse. This supports the idea that it is healthy to use iodized salt, but doesn’t necessarily go against water fluoridation.

What is not mentioned by any of the three writers is that many of the studies showing bad effects of fluoride were done in places where the levels of water fluoride are very high. Those studies are not relevant to Durango, where the level is much lower. Message #3: read original studies to find relevance to our community.

Public health’s goal is to facilitate health for all people. My understanding is that the Durango City Council made the decision to continue with a low level of fluoride in its water supply. This was a good decision from the standpoint of public health because it will benefit those who have the greatest need—people who can least afford dental care, and who may have the poorest diets. Those who feel strongly that fluoride is bad can arrange to drink water without it.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016