Dobbs refused to correct debunked leprosy statistic -- will Boyles?

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

On his May 7 broadcast, CNN host Lou Dobbs backed the veracity of his report citing "7,000 cases of leprosy" reported in the last three years in the United States, despite federal health statistics that state otherwise. Colorado Media Matters noted when a guest on Peter Boyles' radio show made a similar assertion regarding "7,000 cases" of leprosy that government statistics contradict the figure, but Boyles -- a frequent guest on Dobbs' show -- as of May 9 had not corrected the claim.

Following a May 6 60 Minutes profile of CNN host and immigration critic Lou Dobbs that questioned the veracity of his report asserting "7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the past three years," Dobbs defended the figure's accuracy on his May 7 broadcast. However, as Colorado Media Matters noted when a guest on 630 KHOW-AM's The Peter Boyles Show made a similar claim, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) statistics contradict the "7,000 cases" claim. Boyles, who is a frequent guest on Dobbs' show, also had not corrected the figure as of May 9.

Additionally, during neither the 60 Minutes profile nor his May 7 report did Dobbs disclose that the "Dr. Madeleine Cosman" cited on his show as the source of the 7,000 figure was a conservative scholar of medieval medicine writing in the journal of a conservative medical organization, not a medical doctor citing the figure in peer-reviewed research. The bibliography of Cosman's article includes such sources as the website EagleForum.org hosted by conservative ideologue Phyllis Schlafly, the libertarian Cato Institute, and right-wing columnist and author Michelle Malkin.

During the 60 Minutes report, correspondent Lesley Stahl noted that in reporting on diseases illegal immigrants purportedly bring to the United States, Dobbs correspondent Christine Romans "told Dobbs that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the past three years." Stahl added that "a report issued by [HHS]" stated that "7,000 is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years, not the past three. The report also says that nobody knows how many of those cases involve illegal immigrants." Dobbs responded, "Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it's a fact." When Stahl asked how he could "guarantee" the accuracy of the figure, Dobbs replied, "Because I'm the managing editor. And that's the way we do business. We don't make up numbers, Lesley."

The figure Romans cited was also touted by Boyles guest Patricia Doyle, who on his September 20, 2006, broadcast asserted, "We once had 900 cases in 40 years -- the U.S. had 900 leprosy cases. In three years, recently -- for three years -- we've had 7,000 cases."

In fact, according to HHS, fewer than 200 cases of leprosy -- also known as Hansen's disease -- have been reported in the United States each year since 1995. As the HHS website states:

In the U.S., there are approximately 6,500 cases on the National Hansen's Disease Program Registry. This includes all cases reported since the registry began and who are still living.

Furthermore, a 2005 HHS graph showing reported new leprosy cases in the United States since 1976 indicated that the annual number of new cases has remained below 200 since 1995. The same graph shows a total of 7,029 reported leprosy cases in the U.S. from 1976 through 2005.

HHS also states, "A total of 166 cases were reported to the National Hansen's Disease Registry (NHDR) in 2005, representing a > 20% increase over the number of cases reported in the previous year (2004, n=131). This clearly reverses the declining trend in registered cases seen in recent years." Similarly, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated in a June 16, 2006, report ("Summary of Notifiable Diseases -- United States, 2004") that "[t]he number of reported cases of Hansen disease (HD) in the United States peaked at 361 in 1985 and has declined since 1988."

According to CNN's transcript, Romans said during Dobbs' May 7 broadcast that she was quoting the "7,000 cases of leprosy" statistic from "Dr. Madeline (sic) Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian writing in the 'Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.' " Romans apparently was referring to an article titled "Illegal Aliens and American Medicine" by Madeleine Pelner Cosman in the Spring 2005 issue of Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. The article included a sentence reading, "Suddenly, in the past three years America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy," but did not carry a footnote citing the figure's source. The journal is published by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative organization of medical professionals who, according to the website, "favor the restoration of a free market," which they claim "has not existed in American medicine for 60 years." The group also opposes Medicare and decries "socialized medicine."

According to her obituary in The New York Times, Cosman had a doctoral degree in English and comparative literature and was "a scholar of medieval medicine," not a physician. The obituary noted that Cosman, who died March 2, 2006, "worked as a health-care policy analyst" toward the end of her life and was an admirer of "Ayn Rand, whose libertarian ideas she embraced." In fact, Cosman was a research associate at the Objectivist Center, an organization that promotes Rand's philosophy of "objectivism." The bibliography to Cosman's article "Illegal Aliens and American Medicine" features numerous conservative sources. In addition to the Cato Institute, Eagle Forum, and Malkin, it lists the conservative Foundation for Economic Education, the conservative WND Books -- which publishes authors such as Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (CO) and right-wing radio talk show host Michael Savage -- and the conservative think tank American Policy Center.

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