WVU study analyzes risks for communal group

Study focuses on injury and violence risks for the Rainbow Family of Living Light

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Thousands of members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light gather annually on federal land to celebrate peace and alternative lifestyles.  A new study led by a West Virginia University faculty member analyzes the health risks for these young communal group members who may have limited access to care.     

WVU Associate Professor Robert Bossarte, Ph.D., worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources approached him about the project.  He was commissioned to study the risks associated with the Rainbow Family’s 2005 gathering in the Monongahela National Forest.

Bossarte, now a researcher at the WVU Center for Rural Emergency Medicine, will publish his findings in the May issue of the Journal of Healthcare for Poor and Underserved.  His paper, “Injury, Violence and Risk among Participants in a Mass Gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light,” is the culmination of his two-week observation of the Rainbows. 

“The Rainbow Family has a reputation of being an at-risk population,” Bossarte said.  “Federal, state and local governments were concerned that there would be incidents of violence at the event and that people would need medical attention.  We wanted to find out who provides that medical care.”

Bossarte found that the majority of care is provided on-site at the gatherings.  The Rainbow Family attendees with medical backgrounds set up a headquarters called the Center for Alternative Living Medicine.  Many of the staff members are nurses and midwives.  At least one family medical doctor was in attendance as well. 

“From a public health perspective, if you take thousands of people – many without insurance – and put them together in a forest for three weeks, you’re bound to have health issues arise,” Bossarte said. 

To determine what types of risks were greatest, Bossarte and his co-authors administered a survey to 86 people at the gathering.  Participants ranged in age from 18 to 39.  Off-site surveillance was conducted at five different emergency departments within 80 miles of the meeting area.  Staff members at participating emergency departments identified 102 Rainbow-related visits.

“People get so overwhelmed with the energy of the gathering that those who are on prescriptions often stop taking their medications and therefore suffer health consequences,” Bossarte said.  “A great many more people than expected were hospitalized for long-term care.”

Overall, the incidents of violent behavior were lower than expected because, “for the most part, these people are pacifists,” Bossarte said.  “They’re mainly risks to themselves; high incidence of heavy drinking and drug usage can put people at an increased risk for suicide and unintentional injury.”

Bossarte’s study also notes a large number of the adult survey participants experienced childhood abuse, neglect and other forms of victimization.

“These people are falling through the cracks,” he said.  “When asked, 96 percent of these people said they would willingly seek medical help, mental or physical, if they could afford it.  They’re an outsider population who are willing to talk, who are open to treatment but have a bad reputation. “

Bossarte’s recommendation is for the government to begin by distributing national hotline numbers, and by providing access to other resources for the Rainbow Family.

The study’s co-authors include Ernest Sullivent, M.D.; Thomas Simon, Ph.D.; and Julie Sinclair of the CDC; Monica Swahn, Ph.D., of Georgia State University; Danae Bixler, M.D., of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services; and Kristin Wilsonof the Mount Sinai Medical Center. 

According to a Rainbow Family Web site, the Rainbows will gather from July 1 to 7 in Wyoming.

For more information on WVU’s Center for Rural Emergency Medicine, visit www.hsc.wvu.edu/crem/.                                                

- WVU -

For more information:
Cassie Waugh, HSC News Service, (304) 293-7087
cw: 05-07-08

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