The CDC’s Public Health Turkeys

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention performed admirably in managing the recent anthrax attacks. But that performance is a lone highlight for an agency in desperate need of something useful to do.

The CDC’s public health crisis of the moment is traveling by car during the Thanksgiving holiday. The CDC issued an advisory reminding motorists to wear seat belts, restrain children appropriately and to not drink and drive.

While this is sensible advice, the CDC offers it because "in 2000 during the Thanksgiving holiday, motor-vehicle crashes killed approximately 500 persons and resulted in more than 43,000 hospital emergency department visits." CDC portrays Thanksgiving as a particularly risky time for motorists.

In fact, though, the Thanksgiving holiday is no more dangerous to motorists than any other five-day period.

About 40,000 persons are killed and 3.2 million are injured in automobile accidents every year. This averages out to about 110 killed and about 8,800 injured every day. So for any five-day period, we might expect 550 deaths and 44,000 injuries resulting from automobile accidents. There doesn’t seem to be extra motorist carnage during the Thanksgiving holiday.

The CDC pulls a similar stunt every Halloween, alarming parents about increased child pedestrian deaths. During 1975 to 1996, from 4 p.m. through 10 p.m. on October 31, a total of 89 deaths occurred among pedestrians aged 5 to 14 years, compared with 8,846 on all other evenings.

This works out to about 4 deaths each Halloween, compared to 1 death on all other evenings. It apparently never occurred to the CDC that there is a many-fold increase in child pedestrians on Halloween night.

If the CDC more appropriately compared death rates, instead of just numbers of deaths, it most likely would have found the child pedestrian death rate actually decreases on Halloween. But what kind of scare would that make?

Holidays aren’t our only public health "problem," according to CDC researchers. Suburban living is another.

Early November saw the release of "Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health"—a report authored by two senior CDC researchers.

The reasons why suburban living is a public health problem, according to the report, include:

The CDC’s sprawl alert is only the latest of the agency’s efforts to medicalize behavior into a public health problem. Past efforts have targeted such familiar politically incorrect activities as firearms ownership, smoking and alcohol consumption.

The CDC also has extended its alarmism to pets (4.7 million dog bites per year), youth sports ("injuries are common and can be severe"), swimming pools ("try your best to avoid even having water in your mouth") and dating ("courtship violence ranges up to 65%").

Virtually every human activity may have personal health and injury consequences. That, however, should not make every human activity a public health problem subject to CDC nanny-ing.

The CDC was originally called the "Communicable Disease Center" when formed in 1946. Its mission was to control infectious disease. In 1970 when that mission was largely accomplished, the CDC’s name was changed to the "Centers for Disease Control" to reflect a broader mission in preventative health—i.e., bureaucratic sprawl.

The only successful effort beating back the CDC’s interference in every aspect of our lives was achieved in 1996 when Congress banned the CDC from engaging in gun control advocacy.

In the wake of the recent anthrax attacks, the Bush Administration wants to increase CDC’s funding. The CDC, however, could probably accomplish its new bio-terrorism mission within current budget limits if its activities were restricted to actual public health problems.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).