Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Killing You One Customer at a Time: Bad Public Health Policy Will Kill More than All the Terrorists Combined

So we have $200 billion or so out in Iraq, and an administration obssessed with its own program. In the meantime, we discover that half the flu vaccine intended for the United States market is made abroad in Britain, and one little slip-up in a factory has suddenly removed that entire flu vaccine supply. Now we're told that the shortage was a "surprise" to the FDA.

So do you feel safer? Knowing that the FDA didn't even have a contingency plan on producing more flu vaccine for a "safe" season? Suppose the flu is more intense than has been predicted? Why is so much of our vaccine produced abroad? Will the FDA be "surprised" if there's a bio warfare attack on the country that introduces smallpox?

Thousands of people -- tens of thousands of people -- die from the flu every year. More will die if there's no vaccine available. Now ask yourself -- what's a wiser investment in time and energy -- a few hundred million for a guaranteed supply of flu vaccine, or a few hundred billion dollars chasing after WMDs that don't exist?

These are rhetorical questions, of course. The entire philosophy of the current administration is to let the private sector profit from the illness and disease of this country -- a weird sort of social darwinism of supply and demand. The only problem is that supply and demand is a reactive philosophy. It does not, as the lessons of the Bible tell us, save for seven years against famine. It's a philosophy that says once the famine hits and people are dying, then there will be a demand for more grain and profit motives will make us save more the next time. It's a philosophy that says the government shouldn't intervene for the public health and the public good to subsidize and ensure there's more vaccine than is necessary, but rather the public's health is just another commodity.

It's the same philosophy that kills people who can't afford medicine because the government refuses to even allow itself to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for discounts, that bans the reimportation of American-manufactured drugs on dubious "safety" gorunds when there are NO recorded instances of fatalities due to re-imported medicines from Canada, that gives the pharmaceutical industry tax breaks and patent protections that encourage research on drugs to help old men get erecctions but which declines to even charge royalties to those companies on medicines developed at public expense. Of course, many in this administration want to continue to gut funding on medical research because it undermines the operation of the free market.

This is the same FDA that allowed Vioxx to be marketed and sold when clearly there was ample clinical evidence that it was dangerous, and dragged its feet even after the deaths mounted.

Our public health infrastructure is being dismantled as surely as our private healthcare system erodes. Fewer people receive medical care than did thirty years ago. Life expectancy is going down. Infant mortality is going up. Ignore claims we have a health care system that is the envy of the world; all of Europe and most industrialized countries outside of the former East bloc have much better health care, healthier populations who live longer, and CHEAPER health care systems.

People die because of this. I worry about my infant son and my elderly parents getting the flu and dying because the government seems to have no interest in doing anything to assure the public health. This is a classic case of seriously misplaced priorities that has a serious consequence.

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