February 12, 1999

Science-Based Research Vital to Improving Hispanic Health

Dr. Elena Rios

Washington, D.C. — I'm a firm believer in research. At the National Hispanic Medical Association we are working hard to put that belief into action by launching a national research network.

We want to work with the National Institutes of Health, pharmaceutical companies and others to develop research projects involving Hispanics that will improve their health and help spare them and others the ravages of devastating diseases such as Hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C, which can cause permanent liver damage and death, is now the major cause of viral hepatitis in the United States. Unless research points us toward a cure of better treatment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has projected that deaths due to Hepatitis C alone will more than triple by the year 2010 to more than 25,000 per year.

Research is a key to preventing, diagnosing and curing Hepatitis C and other diseases. But it is time-consuming, expensive and often can be frustrating. Silver-bullet cures seldom pour out of laboratory test tubes.

Scientific breakthroughs rarely come in single events. They develop step-by-step, incrementally and sometimes erratically. We have to wait on the results of animal tests, drug trials and epidemiological studies before carefully connecting effects with causes.

But patience is a virtue when it comes to unlocking the causes of diseases and discovering the medicines and treatments that can cure them.

If there is any doubt that this is the right approach it should be dispelled by the ongoing controversy over silicone breast implants and whether they are connected to serious diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma.

Sadly, the silicone breast implant story is one in which litigation came first and research came later, too late in too many cases. With no solid scientific research on which to base their claims, a small group of plaintiffs' attorneys began filing lawsuits almost 10 years ago attributing serious health problems to the implants. Some women and their lawyers won millions of dollars from sympathetic juries.

Beginning in 1994, however, prestigious medical institutions began publishing studies that showed no causal connection between the implants and serious diseases. The first study came from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Others that followed were carried out at the Harvard Medical School, Johns Hop-kins University, the University of Michigan and other institutions, both in the United States and around the world.

The studies did not deny that some women with implants were sick. They did find that women with implants did not develop certain serious diseases any more frequent, than did women without implants.

Late last year a court-appointed panel of scientists and physicians concluded, after taking a look at this impressive body of research, that implants do not cause serious diseases.

The panel reported to Federal Judge Sam C. Pointer in Birmingham, Alabama who is coordinating all breast implant suits filed in federal courts. The Pointer panel is a critical part of a new effort by medicine, science and the law to ensure that scientific disputes in courtrooms are decided on their merits, not on unfounded sensationalism.

In between the time the lawsuits first were filed and the release of the Pointer report, tens of thousands of women with implants were unnecessarily gripped with anxiety. They didn't have the benefits of research to guide them. Many of them underwent unnecessary surgery to have their implants removed. One distraught woman attempted to operate on herself.

While yet another study is underway by the National Cancer Institute, the unfounded rush to judgment over implants and disease prevented many women from seeking the correct cause of their symptoms. In some cases, finding the right diagnoses might have restored them to health.

Patients must have the right to sue their doctors, drug companies or health care providers when they have been abused or mistreated. But they also deserve the opportunity to benefit from the advances that occur when time, money and inspired thinking are devoted to research that moves all of us along the path to good health.

To prevent anything like the silicone breast implant controversy from happening again, we must make well-ground research the top priority in searching for cures and treatments for Hepatitis C and other untamed diseases. Today, 4 million Americans are infected with Hepatitis. There is no vaccine to prevent this liver disease.

Minority doctors and minority residents now must pitch in to do their part as principal investigators and research trial participants to help combat Hepatitis C and other deadly diseases.

Those of us at the National Hispanic Medical Association are committed to doing all we can to finding the resources to support this life-saving research for the benefit of Hispanics and all Americans.

Dr. Elena Rios is president of the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA), a non-profit organization that represents Hispanic physicians and others dedicated to improving health care for Hispanics. Members will meet at NHMA's annual convention, March 19-21, in Washington, D.C. Readers may contract Dr. Rios at the National Hispanic Medical Association, 1700 17th St. NW, Suite 405, Washington, D.C. 20009, and at (202) 265-4267.

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