Many people have likely forgotten the SIDS epidemic of the 1970s and 80s, or were simply born well after it peaked. For those that need a refresher, “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” was a blanket category for unexplained deaths of infants under the age of 1 while sleeping. It’s unusual as far as diseases go because it describes a phenomena that cannot be explained with a simple diagnosis, essentially, it’s an “anti-disease” with no obvious pathological cause. “Crib-death” remained a great mystery for decades until the cases suddenly declined after one simple change in medical recommendations.
For centuries babies have generally been placed on their backs to sleep. If you’ve ever seen the behavior of the typical infant, they prefer to lie in the supine position with all four limbs flailing and generally have a strong aversion to “tummy time”. Put a baby on their belly and you’ll often be rewarded with a twisted frown and a chorus of frustrated cries. During the 1930s and onward through the ’60s and ’70s “experts”, authors and doctors recommended that babies be placed on their stomachs for a variety of reasons, with decreased risk of aspirated vomit being near the top. Now I’m not really sure if there was an epidemic of babies going on three day benders and passing out in their own vomit with a half bottle of Jack Daniels clutched in one tiny hand, but regardless the “cure” was definitely far worse than the alleged disease.
As it turns out, telling parents to put their babies on their stomachs was directly responsible for the increased rate of SIDS observed in the mid 20th century.
After launching the “Back to Sleep” program in 1994, SIDS cases dropped by over 50 % when parents started putting babies on their backs instead of their bellies. The “medical science” behind the previous recommendations was monstrously wrong, it killed untold numbers of infants and it was accepted dogma for decades. Considered an “iatrogenic tragedy” by medical researchers in the distant aftermath, the carnage was not merely limited to bad medical advice either. From 1900 all the way up into the late 1940s, doctors thought that using radiation on the thymus itself could prevent crib-death, resulting in a death toll exceeding 10,000 from thyroid cancer.
This should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of an institution that has expropriated the whole sum total of medical well-being unto itself as the ultimate sovereign of human health. As the study in Sweden demonstrated, there was a historical tradition of laying babies on their backs to sleep that was abrogated by the scientistic arrogance of modern medicine, only to be put back in the early 1990s after killing scores of the most innocent and vulnerable members of the Swedish population. In fact for thousands of years putting babies on their backs was the norm until this was suddenly upended by the intercession of a community that answers to no greater power beyond themselves.
Had modern medicine done absolutely nothing, outcomes for the pediatric population would’ve been better. This speaks to a deep existential problem within healthcare itself, to an institution that has a lack of legitimacy only exceeded by its own monumental hubris. Where is the primum non nocere? Wouldn’t a simple general rule that one should recommend NO intervention unless the absolute safety was established by rigorous testing avoid these outcomes? In the aftermath of this disaster, did it occasion any sort of self-reflection on the epistemology and clinical rationale of western medicine on a large scale?
If modern medicine was able to kill so many healthy babies with short-sighted “scientific advice”, how can anyone not adopt a position of global skepticism about its dictates, prescriptions, and “research”? Given the opiate epidemic, deaths by medical error, over-prescription of pharmaceuticals, and rapidly declining life expectancy, the only rational posture is to be deeply suspicious of anything suggested by “health authorities”.
To truly make progress on healthcare, it must be subjected to institutional criticism with actual wide-ranging consequences, if not completely torn down altogether.