Advocacy, Public Health, and the Media

By: Sharita Thomas  

There are many national health awareness campaigns linked to months, days, and ribbons. The number of causes that we are expected to run for, bike for, and wear pins for is mind boggling. October is ‘Home Eye Safety Month’ and hosts ‘International Stuttering Awareness Day’. There are just two- among at least 20 other nationally and world recognized health observances this month. But there are only two that really monopolize our collective attention: ‘Breast Cancer Awareness’ and ‘National Bully Prevention’.

Breast cancer will develop in approximately 1 in 8 US women and is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths. But the actual chance that breast cancer will be responsible for death is only 3%. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 39,510 women will die from breast cancer in 2012. So how does something with a lower predicted mortality rate seem to garner greater attention and financial support than something like deep vein thrombosis (which kills about 60,000 to 100,000 each year)?

The breast cancer advocacy group is one of the most powerful, and some would argue among the most annoyingly commercial health advocacy group.  But breast cancer advocates had a hard fight to get where they are today. The women at the origin of breast cancer advocacy persistently forced discussion on the issue and remain on offensive today just to keep the cause alive in the American conscious. Breast cancer seems to play well in the media which drives an undeniable social pressure to participate and a general acceptance of some ridiculous pink products. Breasts are also a uniting force because everyone knows someone that breast cancer could potentially affect. Powerful people with money and political access support breast cancer and are able to effectively lobby congress for additional funding. Thanks to the lesser elements of our culture, breasts are powerful and in your face in ways that deep veins can’t be.

Can other health issues that are not easily relatable, generalizable, sexy, nor politically supported reach the level of recognition and support that breast cancer awareness has achieved? I am a supporter of breast cancer research but am skeptical that other important causes can enter the forefront the way breast cancer has if there is little to no political power or media support. Media does a great deal to promote public health issues than does “public health.” Currently, the fight for overlooked but important health issues follows the whim of charity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports health issues that get little media attention but they are a private organization and foundations are subject to their own political and popular influences.

The issue lies with the state of our public health system. Advocacy is a means to overcome structural barriers and educate to achieve a public health goal. For breast cancer advocates, advocacy meant first getting legislatures to acknowledge the existence of breast cancer as well as overcoming misogyny in medicine. The appearance of advocacy groups highlights the shortcomings of public health. The media is a tool that public health, especially public health advocacy cannot do without. However, for issues that are harder to promote through the media or for issues that may seem obscure, there will never be the chance to reach a level that breast cancer advocacy has without government taking a larger responsibility. Ideally, research should provide the foundation for the advocacy of public health issues. But important research does not disseminate past select groups of professionals and academics to the general public. Maybe a form of guaranteed media promotion for important but relatively invisible health issues needs to come about.

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