It's a well-documented fact that Afro-Americans in this country suffer disproportionately from cardiovascular illness, and that when they do they are often less responsive to medication and other standard treatments. There have been many studies that attempt to determine why this is, and the majority of them indicate it's the usual combination of heredity and environment, including health care delivery concerns and behavioral factors such as the prevalence of obesity, as well as a relative dearth of treatment outcome studies that focus on Afro-Americans. In addition, there seems to be something physiologically different in the way these illnesses operate in many blacks, at least on average. It's been difficult (and controversial) to try to tease out which factors have been the most influential.
So when I saw the NY Times headline, "F.D.A. panel approves heart medication for blacks" I thought, "Great!"
A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended the approval of a heart-failure drug specifically for African-Americans yesterday, after a discussion about race, genetics and medicine....In a study of the drug last year sponsored by the manufacturer, 1,050 African-American heart-failure patients showed a 43 percent reduction in mortality.
So it appears that this study was specifically geared to the Afro-American population, and this medication seems to hold promise for that especially difficult-to-treat group. But see this:
The panel's unanimous decision to recommend the drug came despite reservations from two members who said they were worried about moving toward racially specific medications without a sound scientific basis. Dr. Vivian Ota Wang, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health who served on the panel, called race a "social and political construct" that should not be used as a substitute for genomic medicine. "What I'm hearing is that we're using race as a surrogate for a biological process," Dr. Wang said, adding: "I think that inconsistency gives us a false notion that race has a biological basis, when that isn't supported." In her vote to approve the drug, Dr. Wang said she thought it should be available to patients of all races...
Fortunately, Dr. Wang didn't go so far as to vote against the drug on the basis that it wasn't PC to approve it just for Afro-Americans. She just wanted inclusion for everyone, even though there is no evidence as yet that the drug is effective on any group other than Afro-Americans, since the study was limited to them.
Strange, isn't it? Here's something that I would think the PC crowd could get behind--a treatment targetted at a group that's often gotten short shrift both in medical research and in medical treatment. But no, theory seems to trump practicality for some people. No racial profiling in medicine!
Actually, in this case, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Wang that race is a social and political construct. But race is not just a social construct; it is also based on the statistical frequencies by which a series of physical traits occur in any given population--for example, skin color, hair type, and blood type. It might be more accurate to say that race is a construct based on a host of factors, including personal history and self-identification, as well as groupings of physical traits that occur more frequently in members of that race than in other groups. There are no hard biological boundaries between the races; what biological diffferences that exist are prevalences only. But there is no reason to doubt that certain medications might, statistically speaking, be more effective in certain races (the same is true for the sexes--certain pain drugs work differently in men and women, for example).
It would be tragic if PC considerations ever ended up hindering the sort of research that led to the development of this drug, although I can see that happening some day.