Posts Tagged ‘H1N1’

As the Senate prepares to take up the issue of health care reform, the Republican Party is gearing up for a fight to the finish, a fight to defeat any attempt at improving our health care system.  It is a desperate struggle the Republicans are waging, desperate because it is about money – lots of money.  It’s also a sad struggle because it shows so clearly how corrupt our government is. Granted, our government has been corrupt for a long time. Slipping a wad of money into a Congressman’s pocket is an old tradition on Capitol Hill. It’s the best way to assure that you can either get the legislation you want or to prevent legislation you don’t want from being passed.  Today, this “passing of bucks” is accomplished by middlemen, called lobbyists. It seems that just about every Congressman and Senator has his price. There are precious few who cannot be bought.

Money is where the health industry comes in. It is, of course where Republicans come in as well.  After all, they are the Party of business, of Capitalism, of profit. That is their constituency.  One is tempted to say, “OK, that’s alright. Let the Republicans represent the sellers of goods and the Democrats represent the buyers of goods.” Of course, it’s not that simple because the Democrats also represent the ordinary workers, while the Republicans represent the employers.  But one would hope at least that there could be an honest debate.  One could hope that there would be a rational discussion of the facts – all in the national interest.  It would be a debate about what is best for the American people – after all, isn’t that ultimately the purpose of Congress – to do what is best for Americans?

Unfortunately, the Republican Party has chosen not to have a debate on the merits of health care reform.  Instead they have launched campaigns of outright lies about reform. They have tried mightily to steer the debate into discussions about Death Panels and Nazi medical experiments and the rationing of health care.  Any reasonable person can tell that these Republican tactics are nothing but lies and because they are lies and not real issues that should be discussed, the Republican Party has done a disservice to America – in brief, they have become un-American in their zeal to protect the profitability of medicine.

There is a danger here in all of this distortion, in all of these attempts to steer the discussion away from the real issues and to focus on trumped-up concerns that have no basis in reality.  The danger is that we will fail to ever discuss the actual dangers that are inherent in our current way of going about the health business.  Here is one excellent example that, as far as I can tell, is being completely ignored: we have a vastly insufficient supply of H1N1 vaccine because we have a for-profit health system.

The simple fact is that not everyone gets a flu shot every year. Most people do not get routine flu shots and because of this our vaccine industry, ever intent on making a profit, has sized itself according to the yearly demand for flu shots.  Our commercial vaccine production industry simply does not have the capability of making enough H1N1 vaccine to protect everyone man, woman, and child in this country. It simply cannot be done.

So, I would ask our imaginative friends in the Republican Party, the ones whose vivid imaginations can conjure up images of Death Panels and Nazi medicine being practiced on Americans, and the limiting of health care to only those who are connected with someone in government, to think about something else. Consider this: suppose the H1N1 flu strain that is making the rounds this year was different. Suppose instead that it was the same H1N1 strain that made the rounds in 1918. How many people would die in America? One hundred million? Two hundred million? How many would die in the entire world? A billion? Two billion? What could be done stop that strain of flu?  Nothing. Nothing could be done in 1918 and nothing could be done now.

The question I would put to the Republican members of Congress is this: is there any way you could think of that we might be able to make enough vaccine for everyone in a case like this?  There is only one answer: the government has to create this capability in advance – it’s not a last-minute sort of thing.  Why? Because it’s a money loser. Big business would hate it – it’s a gigantic capacity that would only be used once in a lifetime.  You can’t make money from that. Which is why there is a natural role for government in health care. The government spends about half of our national budget on defense – i.e. defending us from other people in other countries. How long will it take until we understand that it is also the role of government to defend us from other foreign attackers, things like viruses and bacteria. It might seem strange at first to look at it that way, but think about this: suppose – just suppose – that there really were aliens from Mars attacking us – would it be the role of government to defend us? What if instead of the Martians being little green men they were little green bugs?  What if these little green bugs were actually microscopic invaders? How is that different from deadly Earth-based viruses attacking us?

The simple fact is that the government has a duty to protect its citizens. This duty extends to protecting the citizen’s health. Health care should not be a profit-making business.  It should be more like a utility, available to everyone and dispensed by the government. That doesn’t mean that businesses can’t play. People are certainly free to purchase health related things, but the government has to understand that it has a responsibility for the health of its citizens – a responsibility that cannot be dodged and delegated to the profit-making business community.  We missed a bullet this time with the H1N1 flu; however, it is virtually certain that a time will come in the future when a very deadly viral pandemic will sweep over the Earth.  The steps our Congress takes in the next couple of months may well determine whether America survives that inevitable pandemic; it may well determine whether the population of our country is obliterated or if it survives.  It would be a shame if hundreds of millions of Americans died in the future all because the Republicans wanted to help their friends in the health business make a buck.

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I’m not talking about some third world country, I’m talking about the United States.  Approximately 50 million Americans have no health insurance and now face the prospect of being turned away from for-profit hospitals if they are in need of treatment for swine flu.  So why is that a concern?  Isn’t that also the way it is for these people if they break a leg or have a heart attack?  Don’t they just wind up at some overcrowded municipal hospital like always?  I suppose so, the only problem is that this time things might be different.

The World Health Organization has announced that there is now a severe form of the Pandemic H1N1 flu that goes straight to the lungs. It causes severe or fatal cases of the flu in young people who had been in good health.  While Americans have been enjoying the summer weather and their days at the beach, the people in the Southern Hemisphere have been battling the Pandemic as it has traveled from country to country and morphed along the way. A second wave if Pandemic H1N1 is about to sweep over the U.S. and the northern countries of the world and we are woefully unprepared.  Unlike Socialist Europe, we have no health care system in place to care for the general population.  We have no system for providing free flu inoculations for the general public. Even more of a concern is that we don’t have the capability to cope with treating the casualties of a severe pandemic, even for our wealthiest citizens.

The World Health Organization has reported that those people who contract the very severe form of Pandemic H1N1 require intensive care in order to survive.  How many of our uninsured poor will be provided intensive care in our for-profit hospitals?  None.  They are going to die.  How many of our uninsured citizens who already suffer respiratory diseases or cardiac disease or diabetes, and thus become very high risks, will be able to be treated in our intensive care units, even if they already pay for the best insurance in the land?  Very few.  The simple fact is that we are unprepared, as a nation, to begin to cope with a serious pandemic. We don’t have the intensive care facilities, we don’t have an emergency plan to deal with need for such mass treatments, and we have no intent on providing it to the general public in any case.

The World Health Organization has issued a worldwide warning about the coming pandemic.  It advises that the disease could have a devastating impact in those parts of the world where adequate health care cannot be obtained.  They are referring to the Third World, where first class medical care is  not available at any price. I guess they forgot about the 50 million – those Americans who also have no access to first class health care because they have no health insurance.

It’s coming soon.  Some of those Socialist European countires are about to begin mass inoculations for the flu.  The United States isn’t ready to do that yet.  Maybe in October.  And it will be done on a priority basis – which may not include you.  Of course, you’ll have to pay for your innoculation, and if you don’t have health insurance maybe you’ll just skip it, like you always do.  Welcome to the land of opportunity.  Welcome to the best health care in the world.  Welcome to North America’s Third World system of “medical care only for the insured and for those who can pay”.

You’re on your own.

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Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that we are now at threat level 5 for a flu pandemic. A level 5 warning means that a worldwide flu pandemic is imminent. The WHO has never before issued a Level 5 pandemic warning.  It seems logical then to expect that we will soon have a Level 6 warning from WHO indicating that we are immersed in a worldwide pandemic.  While these high level warnings serve to get everyone’s attention, they don’t really do much to protect us, as individuals, from contracting the flu.  While the U.S. and world governments (not to mention the news media) have been quick to warn us of the imminent danger, there doesn’t seem to be much the governments are doing to prevent us from getting the flu.

One might think that the government would quickly order the pharmaceutical companies to ramp up production of a vaccine for the new flu virus. The problem is that even if they did, the companies could not respond quickly enough. That’s because our method of vaccine production, using eggs as incubators, is much too slow. Besides that, the companies just don’t have enough capacity to produce millions or billions of vaccine doses in a few weeks. A timely vaccine is simply out of the question.

OK, so how about distributing anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu or Relenza to the general population today or tomorrow?  Wouldn’t that work?  It probably would. There is, however, only one problem. There isn’t enough of either drug available. There are about 50 million courses of anti-viral medication in the U.S.  That should cover about 15% of the population. Worldwide, there are about 500 million doses available. Currently, there are 6.7 billion people in the world, so we can protect about 7% of the world population.  It doesn’t look promising does it? It appears that the government knows there is a potential for panic and strong public demand for these antiviral medications.  The supplies that we do have are being pre-positioned in all the states – under armed guard.

So, what can the average person do? It’s pretty clear that, no matter how well intentioned the Obama administration is, the government does not have the capability to protect U.S. citizens from this disease.  We are on our own.  A worldwide pandemic is inevitable. The only thing we don’t know is how deadly it will be. So far it doesn’t seem to be as lethal as the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide.  On the other hand, our usual fall and winter seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans every year – and we usually have vaccines for those viruses! With this new H1N1 flu, no one in the world will be vaccinated.  It is therefore likely that the death toll will exceed the 36,000 number in the U.S. by quite a bit.  We can only begin to imagine the toll this disease will also take on the worldwide economy as people avoid travel, shopping, public events, and so forth. The economic effect could be significant.

Meanwhile, we are told to wash our hands and avoid crowds.  Both are good advice, but the government will have to do more if the pandemic really takes off. At some point it might be necessary to ban public gatherings, like sports events and concerts.  I haven’t heard anything about quarantine measures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are being considered.  Our only defense against the disease is reducing person to person contact and keeping our hands clean until the virus burns itself out.  The flu viruses can survive on surfaces, like door knobs, for many hours, so it is important to not only wash your hands but to keep them away from your face. Just touching a mucous membrane with your hand can help a virus on your hand enter your body.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to buy increased quantities of food and stockpile it at home in order to minimize shopping trips.  It’s also probably a good idea to avoid traveling to places that have major outbreaks of the disease. I don’t know if there is much else we can do…..

On a related note – About a year ago I finally finished my first novel.  My book, The Viral Epiphany, deals with a pandemic situation very much like the one we are now facing (OK, maybe a lot, lot worse).  How’s that for a coincidence?  If you have a Kindle Reader, it is available on Amazon for digital download here. Sorry, it is not currently available in hard copy form.  The Viral Epiphany is, of course a novel, but it might make you think about how we do things, and perhaps it might also provide a few hours of entertainment while you sit in your home and wait for the flu to pass by.  The book is also Part 1 of a planned thriller trilogy.

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