A new trend in aesthetics is gaining ground in China. As in other cultures, the idea of what is beautiful is constantly evolving, including skin color, hair type, body shape, eye size and color. Therefore, many people spare no effort or money in treatments and surgeries in order to adjust to these standards, even when they entail risks to their health. The use of whitening creams containing mercury or eye and breast surgeries to look more “Western” are still on the rise among Asian women.
And now height is being added to the equation. Parents in China prefer their children to be tall because it can be an advantage when it comes to finding a mate, as well as for some occupations, so doctor consultations include forcing their children to grow twice as much as in previous years. And the most common way they expect to meet their expectations is with the use of growth hormones.
Growth hormones were previously extracted from the pituitary gland of cadavers, and since 1985 they began to use biosynthetic substances that are administered to the child subcutaneous injections once a day.
Normally this type of treatment is used in specific cases of growth problems, such as growth hormone deficiency, renal insufficiency, Turner syndrome, or children with short stature without an underlying cause. But due to the great demand from parents anxious to comply with the new aesthetic trend of “being tall,” added to the campaign generated by private hospitals promoting the treatment with slogans such as “personalized height is not a dream” or “7 points of height depend on genetics and 3 points in the day after tomorrow.” Demand skyrocketed and pharmaceutical companies such as Jinsai Pharmaceutical that develop the biosynthetic hormone saw their profits quadruple in just 5 years.
According to studies from different sources, 1 in 4,000 to 10,000 children may be short in stature due to hormonal malfunction. In China, with a population of 1.4 billion there are between 140,000 and 350,000 patients with this problem. These figures are very small compared to the demand for treatment, which totals 1 million annually, according to a study published by Zhuang Hongdong, president of the Cheese Fund.
The costs of hormone treatments are high. A hormone injection varies depending on the type between 19,000 and 42,000 yuan ($2,800 to $6,200), which is a considerable expense considering that the treatment lasts between 2 and 5 years.
The successful outcome of the treatment is not assured, as confirmed by Huang Ke, deputy director of the endocrinology department of the children’s hospital in Zhegiang. The example a woman with the surname Wang who, after spending 480,000 yuan (about $71,000), her son grew only 1 cm or less than an inch.
Parents place high expectations on this treatment, and it does not necessarily make children grow. According to a study on growth hormones issued by the Tsinghua Chuang Gung Hospital in Beijing, if the therapy works, they will grow no more than 4 to 6 cm, or somewhere between 1-3.5 inches, and in children with familial short stature or developmental delay, it is not proven whether they will be taller as adults than their genetic height.
More than a few doctors are already warning about the abuses in the application of this growth therapy. Because the safety standards for its use are given to those who have definite growth problems, the effects on normal children are not known. In many cases parents risk acquiring the treatment without a prescription to apply it themselves, increasing children’s risk.
High doses of hormones in treatment can accelerate puberty, and if exceeded without indication can cause serious side effects such as fluid retention, disease in the heart muscle causing decreased function, insulin resistance, and stroke among others.
Genetic alteration, a new step to fulfill our whims.
Scientist He Jiankui of the University of Science and Technology of China announced at the end of 2019 the birth of Lulu and Nana, twins genetically modified with the CRISPR/CAS9 technique, also known as genetic scissors. In this technique cuts and modifications are made to the genome, allowing the introduction, correction, or elimination of DNA sequences. Although the experiment was supposedly aimed at protecting against HIV, it raises fears of unethical use by clinics that already offer “designer children” using embryo selection.
The ethical debate is based on the fact that this technique would be able to alter the human genome and not only eliminate the development of certain diseases, but would give us the ability to choose a person’s physical characteristics as well as his or her talents.
According to Leon Kass, chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics: “There is no doubt that the price to be paid for producing genetically optimized babies may be the transfer of procreation from the home to the laboratory. Greater control over the product can only be achieved through the increasing depersonalization of the entire process and its coincident transformation into industry. Such a project will be profoundly depersonalizing.”