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Pouring Ice Water on ‘Awareness’ Campaigns

Americans have long been vulnerable to fads, those odd behaviors that suddenly become all the rage. Back in the 1970s, streaking became the fad du jour, and it involved running naked through public places. I lost my enthusiasm for streaking when I found myself in a briar patch one time, with the police in pursuit. Since then, I have been immune to the bandwagon-jumping impulse of fads.

This year has featured a fad called the Ice Bucket Challenge, a fundraiser for ALS research. On one level this fad was charitable and hopefully beneficial. It showed that Americans do have a heart and are willing to help people stricken with the deadly, debilitating ailment.

The Ice Buckets, and the viral footage of them being poured over the heads of thousands of people, gave ALS the most publicity it has gotten since Lou Gehrig was stricken with the illness, forcing his retirement from the New York Yankees and his subsequent early demise.

Having acknowledged the upside of the fad – the charitable donations raised that will, supposedly, be directed at research for an ALS?cure – I have questions. I assume medical researchers have been seeking that elusive cure for more than half a century. If they haven’t found one yet, could ALS possibly be incurable?

And where does all this money go??Who gets it and what do they do with it? I’ve seen dozens of videos and stories about the Ice Bucket Challenge, but not a single story has explained anything about the research and where and how the money is spent. I suspect a lot of charity money gets stolen and/or wasted. I hope this isn’t the fate of the ALS research money.

The Ice Bucket Challenge accentuates certain ironies. If Americans are suddenly so generously concerned with each other’s health, why do we refuse to fund a universal health care system that provides insurance and acess for every single American? This type of system is not a pipe dream. Rather, it is actual social policy offered to citizens in nearly every other first-world, industrialized nation – except for us, the richest country of them all.

ALS is a tragic illness, but it still affects only a small percentage of the population. Many more Americans suffer from more common ailments that they cannot afford to address because of our hideously expensive health care system and the all-too-common lack of insurance.

Related to the ALS?Bucket fad, we also are bombarded with awareness campaigns focusing on a bewildering array of ailments, diseases, afflictions. This month, breast cancer awareness claims the stage. Regrettably, the National Football League has gone all in, and my favorite gladiators of the gridiron are festooned with ribbons and uniform trimmings, regrettably in that most feminine of colors, pink. The effect is that of a Mr. Yuck patch stuck to my TV.

Hey, I watch football for the escape. Do I have to be reminded, while watching games throughout October, about breast cancer? Shouldn’t female athletes be the ones who carry the ball, so to speak, on breast cancer awareness? If guys are going to promote awareness of cancer, shouldn’t it be something like prostate cancer??If colon cancer awareness claims November, are NFL players going to wear dangling polyps?

What about all the other cancers? Are they going to demand equal time, until each one is grabbing a whole month of awareness? There aren’t enough months in the year for them all, since nearly every organ or body part is susceptible to cancer. How aware am I supposed to be? And what good does it do?

Now, I have nothing against breasts and am quite fond of them, and have seen as few, even in the three-dimensional world. I want breasts to be healthy. But watching NFL brutes lurching around the field dressed in pink is too high a price to pay for a vague, pointless awareness.

Despite all the advantages of modern science and civilization, we Americans are a remarkably sick people. At the very least, most of us are totally out of shape, and two flights of stairs make us bend over and huffy puff. Instead of these awareness campaigns, we need real health education, exercise and non-toxic food, air and water. And we really need universal health care, preferably with a trimmed bureaucracy, an efficient single-payer system, cost control and a final acknowledgement that some diseases are incurable.

I hope all that extra ALS research money finds a cure, but I suspect that it won’t.

Disease and death are an inevitable part of life, and not necessarily a medical failure. Something has got to kill you, and something will kill you. Longevity comes with its penalties, some intolerable. Physicians are not magicians, and no amount of money, research, and wishful thinking will ultimately defeat the Grim Reaper. I doubt even a bucket of ice waster poured over our collective heads will help Americans face that bitter truth.

Rogerson, of Wheeling, is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College.

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