This story begins at a scientific meeting on Nutrition sponsored by the Bengoa Foundation which took place on March 14th. and 15th. in Caracas. In it, Dr. Maria Nieves Garcia from the Medicine Department of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) presented data from a study which showed extremely high levels of anemia in the northern states of the plains (llanos) of Venezuela, which reached alarming levels of over 70% in populations of children under two years old, with overall levels of 32% in children between the ages of 2 and 15.
As background, anemia has been a long storied problem in Venezuela, which has been attacked successfully by adding iron to the corn flour used to make such preparations as arepas, empanadas and other local dishes. This was the result of the work of the founder of Dr. Nieves’ laboratory at IVIC, Dr. Miguel Layrisse who worked in close collaboration with Fundacredesa a center that studies the Venezuelan population and which was founded by Dr. Mendez Castellanos. Dr. Nieves did mention in her talk that some of the corn flour being sold by Mercal, the Government’s food distribution network does not contain iron, a reversal of a method that had been extremely successful in limiting anemia in Venezuela for the last forty years.
The reaction by the irrational revolution was violent and virulent. In the next two days both Fundacredesa and the Ministry of Science published paid ads in major Venezuelan newspapers, questioning the validity of the data (see the text in the Fundacredesa webpage as long as it remains there), questioning the ethics of the author and calling the study “descriptive” and “non-probabilistic (??)”, saying that it did not allow “inferences”.
Clearly, the study irked the authorities by concluding something that goes against the image of the Government, despite the fact that the researcher was simply noting that these levels were a source of concern and that when importing corn flour to sell in the Government’s markets someone had forgotten the experience with local corn flour as a weapon against anemia. Little did it matter whether the story was right or wrong, it simply had to be discredited for the sake of the reputation of the revolution even if they had to damage the reputation of a researcher. These ads in the local press were expensive and obviously the researcher had few weapons to counter it with. In fact, according to a reporter in today’s newspaper the researcher is now “on medical leave” and unavailable.
But even if Dr. Nieves is suddenly “unavailable” for answering questions, she did terminate her collaboration with Fundacredesa in a letter in which she not only defends her conclusions, but explains in detail their meaning. Here are some highlights of that letter:
“The data and analysis provided by IVIC to Fundacredesa are not the property of that institution, nor does my laboratory receive funding to do them. The data mentioned is final and does not require subsequent analysis or changes, (the bold is in the letter), least of all after five months after completing the study and handing in the results to your institution.”
“As to the statement made in the ad in the newspapers: “the conclusions obtained in this study, can only refer to the group sampled and does not represent the population of the northern axis of the Llano and least of all of Venezuela”, based on the nature of the experimental design this must be something that will shake the foundation of Fundacredesa, given that both the design, as well as the recollection of samples is, like it has always been the responsibility of that institution. I should remind you that previous publications by Fundacredesa have been based on studies with similar designs…one of which clearly states that the information obtained can not be taken in a strict statistical sense as representative of the universe, but it does generate a good reference framework. Thus, I ask, when is it convenient that the information be a good reference? Similarly, why does Fundacredesa design costly population analysis and studies that do not allow any inferences?”
“The statement that the study is non-probabilistic because “not all kids under two years had the opportunity to be included in the sample” appears to be the recognition that access for healthy kids (the selection criteria in the study) to health centers is limited, which may be true, but does this mean that as long as this is true we will not be able to determine if there is an anemia problem in the country? Is there any reason to think that kids under two, of the same social strata as that evaluated, but could not be evaluated because they have no access to health centers, is in better shape that those that do?”
“It is a pity that the ads make no reference to the importance of the results and that the numbers obtained are not abstract, THEY REFER TO HUMAN BEINGS. Even if we suppose that that the prevalence of anemia is only representative of the group studied, I remind you that in three states of this country there “lives” a group of children under two years of age that when 137 of them were evaluated, 97 of them were found to have anemia. What is being done about this?”
“On Sunday March 20th. the Ministry of Science published another ad, where it says that according to data provided by you, my result can not only not be generalized, but the prevalence of anemia reported DOES NOT EXIST. I hope this statement is the result of a study of a sample that is representative of reality. Such data should be made public together with the sources that allow them to reach such conclusions.”
“I close by hoping that more resources and knowledge will be devoted to improve the situation of Venezuelans, more than in statistical manipualtion that do not allow us to see reality”
“Since the studies designed by that Institution do not allow to reach conclusions that will translate into action to improve the quality of life of Venezuelans, since the analysis that are made in my laboratory requires a financial effort, time and work and knowledge and because of the way in which you have attempted to discredit both my data and my professionalism, I terminate the collaboration with your Institution which leaves me with the sad impression that the least important thing in this situation is the health of Venezuelans”
Once again, the revolution is more important than the truth and the truth can be discredited, attacked and wiped out given the resources of the Government. As for science, we already know the Government could care less about it, it already destroyed the premier center for the understanding of Venezuela’s most important natural resource: heavy oil. The difference this time, is that the science refers to actual real and live human beings. “El pueblo”, as our illustrious autocrat would say.