World, heal thyself

Local doctors’ group brings national leader to town after visit to Iran

Dr. Catherine Thomasson stumped in Sacramento last week for the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Dr. Catherine Thomasson stumped in Sacramento last week for the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

SN&R Photo By Kel Munger

“Our main goal is a prescription for a safe and healthy world,” said Dr. Catherine Thomasson. The president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Thomasson visited Sacramento last week to give a public presentation on her recent visit to Iran, stressing the need to avoid either threats or sanctions when dealing with the country’s nuclear program.

The situation in the Middle East is not the main focus of PSR, but it’s been pushed to the forefront by recent events, said Thomasson. “I was very disheartened to read Seymour Hersh’s articles about plans to invade Iran,” she said. Thomassson had met some Iranian doctors while in Helsinki for another meeting, and made plans to visit based on her discussions with them. Unable to obtain visas for PSR, she went instead with a group from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace and justice organization. She returned in March.

Thomasson’s presentation at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral attracted around 90 people, ran slightly over an hour and included slides, a demographic report—60 percent of Iran’s population is under 30—and a history of that country’s relations with the United States. The physicians’ leader made clear that she sees no reason for the United States to consider military action against Iran. “Iranians on the street do not believe that their country is making nuclear weapons,” she stressed. “They believe that there is a religious edict against nuclear weapons.”

Her contention is that Iran is ready to engage in diplomacy and to allow inspections, if the United States only will come to the table. She also urged opposition to a current Senate bill, co-sponsored by California Senator Dianne Feinstein. SB 970 would extend sanctions against Iran. “The head of the [International Atomic Energy Agency, which does inspections of nuclear facilities], ElBaradei, says flatly that sanctions are a bad idea,” Thomasson said. “We need to contact our senators and tell them to vote ‘no’ on this bill. Military threats and sanctions only help the hard-liners to further consolidate their power.”

Thomasson pointed out that the bellicose stance of politicians and current presidential candidates toward Iran is not helping matters any. Referring to the recent presidential debates, she noted that a number of candidates mentioned that the use of nuclear weapons against Iran was a possibility. “That’s a crime,” she said. “It’s a crime to threaten a country with nuclear attack.” She drew the loudest laugh of the evening with her follow-up: “They usually wait until they’re elected to start committing crimes.”

At a pre-lecture dinner at Zen Sushi with a dozen local PSR leaders and others, Thomasson chatted about priorities for the organization. “We’ve always had a focus on energy, because that’s the key to everything,” she told SN&R. “Safe, local energy decreases all sorts of health risks—from nuclear waste to global climate change to war.” According to Thomasson, nations with oil reserves are 40 times more likely to have civil war. She also pointed out that dependence on fossil fuels is behind all sorts of health issues, starting with global climate change.

Far from a stereotypical radical, Thomasson is a no-nonsense internist at Portland State University, mother to a teenage son, and a wife who appreciates her husband’s cooking. “This is good tempura,” she said. “I wish my husband would make it more often.”

Thomasson’s activism started in medical school. “I saw Witness to War, Dr. Charlie Clements’ film about El Salvador. It really opened my eyes.” Since then, she’s worked with PSR and other organizations devoted to peace and health issues, eventually serving as president of the Oregon chapter of PSR before being elected to the national board.

Like any good doctor, Thomasson was quick to make referrals. A discussion with Marilyn Perry, a board member at Los Rios Community College, quickly led to a list of resources to assist the board in their goal of developing a “green” college. Thomasson went on to talk about how to frame the issue in order to gather support.

Also present at the dinner was a visiting physician from Iran, Dr. Mohsen Malekinejad, a UC Davis graduate who is currently working on a doctor of public health degree at UC Berkeley. Malekinejad also is working with researchers at UC San Francisco on a collaborative project on HIV/AIDS.

“We’re studying drug users in Tehran,” he told SN&R. Overall, Malekinejad said, the HIV prevalence is pretty low in the Middle East for a variety of reasons. “But there is a potential for increase in Iran because of an estimated 3 million drug users, with 300,000 using injectable drugs.” Since Iran shares borders with major drug-producing countries—including some, like Afghanistan, that are not particularly stable—drugs are surprisingly available. “So there’s a huge potential pool of HIV infected people,” he said. “The current rate of infection, which is based on very limited studies, shows a rate of infection of 25 percent, but those numbers are not reliable. So we are working to get more reliable information.”