Last week, the Department of Health of Human Services issued a list of seven words to avoid including in CDC budget documents.

Echoes of Orwell at the Nation’s Top Health Agencies

Last week, employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received a list of words from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that they were told to avoid using in forthcoming federal budget documents. The list, which included words like “diversity,” ‘transgender,” “evidence-based,” “science-based,” and “fetus,” among others, was seen by much of the public as outrageous, and in the words of a former federal official, “stupid and Orwellian.”

Last week, the Department of Health of Human Services issued a list of seven words to avoid including in CDC budget documents.

Visual: Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Despite the initial outrage, that official and others have suggested that the list’s significance was being overstated in the press. They pointed out that the word ban applies only to budget documents, not to the agency’s actual scientific publications. A former CDC employee who spoke to Vox said that because the agency is facing budget cuts, they’re likely tailoring their language to appeal to their audience of conservative Republicans.

Still, while previous administrations have worked to manage the conversation around certain contentious issues, Trump’s word ban appears to represent a new level of information control — and the tactic seems to be spreading.

Reports surfaced on Monday that HHS itself was withholding public comments on a proposal to reduce regulations on religious and faith-based groups. The proposal, which could affect access to abortion and care for transgender patients at certain institutions, received over 12,000 comments as of November 24. But in a departure from convention — and perhaps in violation of federal law — the agency had only made 80 of those publicly available as of this week — almost all of which were in favor of the Trump plan.

Also in the news:

• Last week’s events all make the U.S. look a lot like Venezuela, where the government has actively sought to block access to data illustrating the devastating effects of the country’s food shortage. Though the country’s last report on child mortality came out in 2016 and doctors have been warned not to include malnutrition in children’s medical records, an investigation involving 21 public hospitals reveals record numbers of children with severe malnutrition. With nearly all Venezuelan hospitals facing shortages of the formula these infants desperately need, many women are opting to be surgically sterilized to prevent future pregnancies.
(New York Times)

• As wildfires continue to ravage Southern California, the Thomas Fire northwest of Los Angeles is on track to become the state’s largest in modern history. So far, the fire has burned nearly 272,000 acres, just 1,500 less than the Cedar Fire in 2003. Though the blaze is now 50 percent contained, officials expect it to burn into January. (CNN)

• This week, the National Institutes of Health lifted a three-year moratorium on studying dangerous viruses — specifically those that had been made more potent or infectious by research laboratories — saying that it had developed new and better assessment criteria for such work. NIH director Francis Collins announced Tuesday that a tough new assessment plan was now in place and invited researchers whose work had been put on hold to reapply for approval. (Science). 

• On Tuesday, the FDA approved a new type of gene therapy aimed at treating a rare form of inherited blindness. By targeting and replacing the disease-causing gene, the therapy is said to slow the progression of a type of retinal disease, restoring some vision. The creators, Spark Therapeutics haven’t yet said how much the treatment will cost, but analysts estimate $1 million. (STAT)

• On the same day, China announced an ambitious plan to launch the world’s largest carbon market. The plan will offer financial incentives to companies to reduce emissions — but a hard timeline and other regulatory details are still up in the air. It will initially cover the country’s polluting power generation plants, which produced almost half of the country’s emissions from the burning of fossil fuels last year, and then expand to other sectors of the economy. Environmental groups welcome the development, but reactions remain mixed. (New York Times)

• And finally: Blockchain technology is designed to do two things extremely well: eliminate centralized control of data, and resist fraudulent manipulation of that data. It’s the engine that makes Bitcoin all the buzz, and now it has some researchers considering its virtues for science, with supporters of the idea arguing it might help to enhance reproducibility and the peer review process. Needless to say, not everyone is convinced. (Nature)