Monday, February 12, 2007
Health awareness days: Mark your calendars again and again
It's February. There are hearts everywhere. Most of them are for Valentine's Day, but some are commemorating American Heart Month. After all, it was just a couple of Fridays ago, February 2, when celebrities around the country, including CNN's own Larry King, Paula Zahn and Soledad O'Brien, helped observe National Wear Red Day. Public service announcements on heart health abound.

American Heart Month is just one of more than 200 official National Health Observances in 2007. Every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services develops a calendar of these awareness days, weeks and months to highlight a particular disease or health issue. Each year, HHS gets dozens of requests to get more issues on an already crowded calendar. In addition to hearts, this month has lesser-known awareness days for low vision, prenatal infection, children's dental health, burns, children of alcoholics, organ donation and eating disorders. Sometimes it seems that the dates assigned to a particular issue are chosen at random. All of them are serious health issues needing attention, but what is my personal February favorite? Today is the first day of National Condom Week and Valentine's Day is National Condom Day. Apparently, February is a good time to talk about hearts and condoms.

A National Health Observance Day can bring much-needed attention and donations to an important health issue. Last year's "Go Red for Women" raised $2.1 million for National Wear Red Day out of a total of $23 million for the year. There is no real way to quantify the effects of these events, but Dr. Elizabeth Nabel of the American Heart Association points out that before National Wear Red Day started in 2004, 1 in 3 women died of heart disease. Now, those numbers have improved to 1 in 4 women.

Breast Cancer Awareness in October and Lung Cancer Awareness in November are other examples of successful health awareness events. The pink-ribbon campaign dates back to 1992, when 1.5 million ribbons were handed out along with self-breast exam instructions at Estee Lauder cosmetic counters around the country. Now, pink is an unmistakable icon for breast cancer. Every November, the American Cancer Society launches the Great American Smokeout. The Quitline and the ACS Web site get the highest traffic of the year around that day.

I think awareness days can be incredibly successful. As a health journalist, I get a deluge of story pitches from publicity campaigns ranging from Colorectal Cancer Month to Jaw Joints/TMJ Day to National Fruit and Vegetable Day. The most successful campaigns usually are marked by a healthy budget and passionate advocates.

Do you think February as Heart Month and October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month make a difference? Do you pay more attention when you find out that today is a day highlighting a particular issue? Which health issues deserve their own days?

Editor's note: CNN Medical Intern Caroline Bray contributed to this blog
Wow, I was formulating an intelligent sounding reply in my head and then got to "National Condom Week" and cracked up laughing instead.

I feel like Americans are so inundated with various holidays (love your pet day??) that no one notices or cares anymore. For heart disease, it would be nice if instead of just mentioning heart disease, they would also throw in "exercise regularly", "eat less triglycerides [animal fat] and Saturated Fats" and "eat more anti-oxidant vegetables [dark greens, orange/deep yellow, legumes...]" You get my point I guess. Most people don't have the slightest idea of how to avoid higher possibility of heart disease. They'll read the report and then order a pizza.
As the founder of a non-profit devoted to eating disorder awareness, the end of February is the most important time of the year for us. Many of our efforts focus on activities and events that take place during the end of February: National Eating Disorders Awareness Week-- although we call it Love Your Body Week ( We help organize teen clubs who produce theatrical performances and awareness events on their campuses, and we do a big push for parents of young kids to help them become more aware of how they can help prevent eating disorders in their kids.
You really nailed it when you said that successful campaigns have "healthy budgets and passionate advocates." Eating disorders are a tough sell for donors when they are viewed as a bunch of rich, white girls who just want to look like Paris Hilton. These are mental illnesses that are killing our best and brightest citizens, and yet it is tough to break through the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding eating disorders in a fat-phobic, diet-obsessed culture. If only I had a nickle for every time I have heard someone say, "I just wish I could be anorexic for two weeks?" (How many people have said, "I just wish I was clinically depressed and suicidal for two weeks!"??)
It is also hard to find a passionate advocate in Hollywood, since so many celebs are caught up in the competition to be the thinnest, or they deny having stuggled with eating disorders because they fear the impact on their career. It takes tremendous courage for stars like Tracey Gold and others to talk about what they have been through, and to back up the prevention and fundraising efforts of non-profits. Because there is still a stigma attached to mental illnesses and because so many families feel ashamed about having a child who may have suffered, they are less likely to speak out or support eating disorder- related charities.
Our goal is to help reduce the stigma attached to eating disorders so that people who are struggling will seek help early in the progression of the illness, and so that their friends and loved ones can be educated themselves about these complex disorders.
Does designated a month, day, week, etc. make a difference in promoting awareness for a certain health issues? Would I pay better attention to a cause if the day was highlighting the issue? Which issue deserves its own day? Wow, are those loaded questions?

I would answer yes to the first two, but the only way that is going to work is if people are willing to help promote the cause. And by people I mean help from the news, the media, the talk shows, etc. Awareness is only as great as the source that helps promote the awareness. When you have a cause that tons of people are busting their behinds to get more awareness brought to the publics attention, but you have editors, news people, or hosts of talk shows that don't feel that cause is "heart wrenching� or �unique� enough it does not matter what day, week, or month is designated. There are people out there who work hard to bring awareness to different causes but are constantly fighting an uphill battle.

Which issues deserves its own day? Who are we to decide that one issue is more important than another? To the eyes of those who are living with it, of course the issue is going to deserve its own day.

So let�s take a health issue that does have an important need for awareness. And yes it is one that I have been living with for the past 4 � years after the birth of my son. Congenital Heart Defects or CHD�s. How many of you out there know that this is the #1 most common birth defect? Did you know that it is the #1 most common cause of infant death related to birth defects? Did you know that there is no known cause or cure for CHD�s? Did you know that nearly twice as many children die from CHD�s each year than ALL forms of childhood cancers combined, yet there is 5 times more research for pediatric cancers? Did you know that 1 in 10 of those affected by CHD will have a fatal defect? Did you know there are an estimated 1 million Americans living with a CHD?

I am willing to bet that the majority of the public is not aware of these facts, and why is that? Because there is not nearly enough awareness brought to the attention of CHD�s. And I can honestly say that is not due to a lack of trying on the parts of the many families out there living in the CHD world. A big part has to do with the media, the hosts, etc. that shoot us down whenever we try to put the awareness out there. The CHD community has been fighting for years to get the president to make Feb. 14th National CHD Awareness day. It gets shot down every try. So instead each year many heart families write to their states Governors to sign a proclamation to promote the 14th as CHD awareness day, and this year they are signing to make Feb. 7th through the 14th CHD Awareness week, which many states have signed. But because it won�t be recognized by the president as a national event, we have to do it all over again every year.

So I am sure many are saying well what are you complaining about, the president has made Feb. National Heart month. That is a wonderful thing, yes, but have you heard any mention of congenital heart defects among the heart issues discussed during this month? Did you know that the 14th is where red and blue in honor of CHD�s? Even in our �own� heart community CHD�s get put on the back burner. Most of it is about heart disease and how to prevent it, women�s heart health etc. This is great, don�t get me wrong, but the thing that is WIDELY missed is those born with Congenital Heart Defects, were just that�BORN with it. It had absolutely nothing to do with life style. No amount of exercise or eating healthy is going to fix their hearts. In most cases the only thing that will �help� their hearts is heart surgery, which are usually done in infancy. And in almost all cases of CHD�s there is no �fix�, only palliative care. For a lot of them, if the surgical route does not work, they will require a heart transplant. This disease is not one that could have been prevented; it is one that they had no control over.

So to answer your question, yes awareness can have a big impact on a cause�but only when that awareness is properly applied and widely accepted as an important cause. And like you said a healthy budget and passionate advocates are needed to promote the awareness. I think the question you need to be asking is what is it that makes a cause worthy enough to get promoted by those of influence that have the ability to help put the awareness out there? With more research, many more born with CHD�s will live even longer and more prosperous lives. Just 10-15 years ago my son would not have lived with his heart defects. We don�t know what it is going to be like 10-15 years from now for him, but I do know that there is a great need for more research. But since more research requires more research dollars, we need more awareness to the cause. I do think awareness does have an affect on issues.
Our world population grows closer and closer as we are quickly and easily transported around the globe with the use of the internet and transportation modes that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Our eyes have been opened to suffering and hurt that we can hardly bear. It comes into our living rooms via satellite and cable and our hearts are touched. The fact that certain months and days are set aside for specific diseases is wonderful. Opportunities can be provided in the most subtle ways that remind people to get that check-up, take that pill and take care of you.
As I sit here writing this blog a popular television show came on hosted by Howie Mandel and all of the models on the show were wearing red dresses. Howie commented that all of the ladies looked Mmmm, Mmmm good. The Campbell's Soup company had donated all of the dresses in honor of "Go Red" month. Heart disease in women was being targeted and the dresses were being auctioned online after the show to raise money for that platform.
Yes, I do believe that setting aside special days and months to raise awareness in our population is very beneficial. Celebrities are also a wonderful avenue to reach out to people. We have to remember that illness knows no boundries and respects no one. Rich, poor, famous or homeless we all can be touched by disease of any kind at an time.
Continue setting aside special days and months to remind us all of what's out there. Making our world healthier should be important to us all, not only does it affect today's population but future generations to come.
Hi Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

I am one of the keen followers of your medical programs and reports on CNN and I must thank you for the good work you are doing, you just don�t know how many lives you have touch, change, heal or just console. Please keep up the good work.

Now Dr Gupta, I have a colleague who is suffering from voice loss. She lost her voice when she was 7 years old. Today she is 23 years and all she can do is whisper, she can�t talk. Her whisper can only be heard within a radius of 3-4 meters, and sometimes one can hardly hear her. She tells me her parents took her to several hospitals but that didn�t help much. I personally think they were unable to get her good medical service due to financial constraints. I feel there is something than can be done to help this lady, it is not late for her to get the condition reversed, i still feel she can be cured. I would really like to help in anyway possible but I don�t know what to do. I would like if possible to connect her to throat/voice physicians/specialists, who can recommend the best approach in helping her.
I was hoping you could help Dr Gupta given your wide network of friends and colleagues in the medical circles.

I am Kenyan, living and working in Nairobi.

My name is Moses B. Odhiambo, my contacts are: cell phone +254 722 717 246 and office: +254 204 445 0190-6

Thanking you in advance.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
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