Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
The Man Behind “Died Suddenly”
Until he created the documentary “Died Suddenly” and unleashed a new conspiracy theory on the internet, Stew Peters just wanted to be famous online. After many tries, the former bounty hunter finally found the sweet spot for vitality by fusing anti-vaccine rhetoric with far-right conspiracy, according to Mother Jones.
Peters, who is from Minnesota, first built a following by documenting his own bounty hunting videos, but then was arrested after becoming violent in his home. He eventually created a livestream talkshow where he hosted prominent conspiracy theorists like the makers of Vaxxed and Plandemic.
He also helped launch a far-right news organization called Red Voice Media, which Mother Jones called “explicitly antisemitic.” The organization has now distanced itself from him, and opened a channel on Telegram after the January 6 insurrection. Its posts moved “between pandemic conspiracy content (‘There was NEVER a virus. It’s a BIOWEAPON!’) and vitriolic rhetoric about Black people.”
Peters has produced three documentaries. The latest one has a premise that “comes off as being remotely plausible,” the article stated. Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said Peters figured out how to take advantage of “the few days between someone dying and an official report on the cause of death. They realize they can weaponize that lacuna in knowledge.”
The hashtag #diedsuddenly took on a life of its own, building further conspiracy around celebrity deaths like Ahmaad Galloway and Lisa Marie Presley. Peters stoked the flames by suggesting Damar Hamlin’s public appearance after being hospitalized was a “deep fake.” Experts worry the success of the documentary and its sentiment will further tie anti-vaccine activists to White nationalists and QAnon-ers.
Rethinking Hormone Therapy in Menopause
For decades, menopausal hormone therapy has been available to treat symptoms like hot flashes, sleep disruption, joint pain, and the genitourinary syndrome that can affect 85% of women as they transition from perimenopause to menopause starting in their late 40s. But, according to the New York Times, the treatment has been vastly underutilized and misrepresented in the public sphere.
Hormone therapy used to be commonly prescribed, with some 15 million women taking it in the late 1990s. But an NIH study in 2002 — the first “gold standard” trial to look at the treatment in thousands of women — suggested that the combination of estrogen and progestin raised some health risks.
By 2009, prescriptions for hormones had dropped 70%.
“It is painful to contemplate the sheer number of indignities unnecessarily endured over the past 20 years,” the article stated.
For example, the risk of breast cancer at age 50 or 60 is around 2.3% in women. Hormone therapy raised that risk by 26% — to only about 2.94%.
The article said the study design also was flawed. It was weighted toward older women with greater risks for heart attacks or cancer, which meant health outcomes for women in their 50s, who have more menopausal symptoms, were underrepresented.
Since then, smaller studies have started to build back the treatment’s reputation, but it has never really recovered. Many medical schools don’t teach about menopause, and doctors aren’t well-versed in the true risks and benefits of the treatment.
JoAnn Manson, MD, DrPH, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told the New York Times, “We’re talking about literally tens of thousands of clinicians who are reluctant to prescribe hormones.”
Long COVID Care Even Harder for Black Americans
Black Americans have more than their fair share of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Now, many of the same barriers to care that amplified these disparities are delaying long COVID care for Black people, according to ABC News.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, showed 34.6% of Black respondents with long COVID reported that it was severely limiting their daily activities, compared to 30.5% of other, non-Hispanic races.
Chimére Smith, a middle school English teacher, said she wasn’t tested for COVID-19 at multiple hospitals because there weren’t enough tests. She was told she was just being anxious. Even after several months, vision loss in her left eye, and not being able to work or drive, and a dozen visits to doctors and hospitals, she got no treatment plan.
“I felt powerless,” Smith told ABC News. “The way that some of those doctors talk to me, I can tell they were talking to me that way because I was a Black female patient, who they assumed did not know anything about what was happening to her body.”
This bias is nothing new to Black patients, who have a history of being mistreated by the medical system. But getting treatment for long COVID is already hard enough, a member of the Johns Hopkins Post-Acute COVID-19 Team told ABC News. For Black Americans, there’s less access to quality health insurance, more reliance on public transportation to get to a clinic, and less access to the internet.
“I can tell you, for a lot of affluent patients coming to our clinic or white patients, what got them to this clinic is that their doctor took their symptoms seriously and got him to our clinic,” said Panagis Galiatsatos, MD. But with Black/African-American patients, “it took them several doctors to listen to what they’re experiencing before someone took them seriously.”
After a year and 2 months of symptoms, Smith said she cried when a physician, a Black woman, finally told her, “I believe you.”