Monday, April 24, 2017

Reading Henrietta Lack as Pornography?

This commentary was originally posted 9/15/15.  I am reposting it because of the airing of the HBO Movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks starring
Oprah Winfrey, on April 23, 2017. 


How does an award winning book that reads like a detective story and an exposes racial and ethical issues in medicine in the US – so timely when threats to our personal privacies proliferate – get called “pornography” and almost gets banned from Tennessee’s Knox County High School?

The book – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), written by science writer, Rebecca Skloot.  I’m sure you’ve read it - the story of how a sample of cervical cancer cells was taken from a poor Black woman, Henrietta Lacks, as she was being treated for cancer. Lacks’ cells were used to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. The central problem - Ms. Lacks never gave permission for her cells to be kept and used. In fact, for decades her family had no idea that her mother was immortalized among scientists as “HeLa.”

Last week it was reported a mother in East Tennessee did not want her 15 yr. old son to read the book as part of his assigned summer reading, calling it “pornographic” and “too graphic.”    In fact, the mother is trying the get the book banned from Knox County High School.

Not surprisingly online media have had a field day with this – Slate, Huffington Post, and other parents in the Tennessee school district – calling it  “modern-day book burning,” “provincialism,” and “censorship.”

Sure enough.  But for me this incident with the Mom shouts out low health literacy in the US – the serious problem and reality of children and adults learning very little and understanding less about their bodies, how they work, and how to keep them healthy.

In Skloot’s book there is a powerful scene when the author is speaking with Lack’s oldest son, Lawrence (now 64), trying to explain the amazing biological legacy that his mother’s cells have created – the advances in medical treatment that resulted.  Skloot draws a circle with a dot in the center to represent a cell because she realizes that the son, like at least half the adults in the US, lack the most basic of health and science concepts – understanding what the building blocks of life are – cells.

The low health literacy of millions of adults in the United States has been called a “silent killer” (Zarcadoolas, Pleasant & Greer, 2006). The data documenting low health literacy is overwhelming. More than 30 years of evidence demonstrates that a significant portion of the U.S. adult population has difficulty accessing, understanding and using information about health.  Roughly 80 million adults in the U.S. have either basic or sub-par health literacy. And we’re not any better with science.  

       Between 5 and 15% of the public qualify as scientifically literate.  Only 18% can be considered an attentive science public. This includes – the fundamental scientific concepts, scientific process, scientific research, technology and scientific uncertainty and that rapid change in the accepted science is possible.
To make it a bit more graphic:
       Most know Earth travels around the Sun. √
       But few can successfully define molecule. X
       Most don’t understand the scientific process- hypothesis/testing/evidence. X
       About 60% know antibiotics don’t kill viruses. X
       More than 50% believe the earliest humans did live at the same time as dinosaurs. X

I’m not shocked at this Mom’s actions. Like most she’s likely looking out for her child. 
But I’m left seeing once again, the seemingly intractable legacy of the poor health and science literacy that is epidemic among us.