Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 October 2014

How a Republican Senate Takeover Could Hurt Your Health, Literally


[For a recent post comparing the urgency of the war against IS with the war against ebola, click here.]

What are the chances of a “superbug,” resistant to antibiotics, infecting you or your children and killing them? What are the chances that ebola might come to your city or town, or might maim the global economy that supports you and your family? What are the chances of ebola mutating, going airborne, and turning into a modern Black Plague that could decimate humanity? What are the chances that a “killer asteroid” could maim or destroy human civilization, taking you, your home and your family with it?

You might think all these risks remote and small. Maybe they are. It’s hard to tell because they are all “unknown unknowns.” Not only don’t we know how big these risks are. We don’t even have the data. In the case of ebola we don’t even have good theory.

But we do know three things. First, all these risks are real and nonzero. Second, they are likely to get bigger as time goes on. Third, they are likely to get much bigger if Republicans take over the Senate in November.

Why is that? Because Republicans don’t care about these risks. They don’t take them seriously, except when they can use them as an excuse for bashing the President. Most of all, they don’t want to spend any money assessing them, let alone reducing them. We know that doing either will cost money.

In the case of superbugs, lowering the risk will also require regulation. It will require limiting or prohibiting farmers’ rampant, unregulated and unreported use of antibiotics in raising animals, which creates superbugs. And regulation is a big “no-no” for Republicans.

In the case of ebola, reckoning the risk will require more scientific research, which costs money. Reducing the risk will require not only more stringent public-health programs, but pouring money into producing the anti-ebola drug ZMapp and the already-safety-checked vaccine at scale. We desperately need to do both—on an emergency, wartime footing—if we are to have any hope of stopping the epidemic now ravaging West Africa from getting out of hand.

Government will have to put up that money. Private investors won’t until an epidemic arises, or, in the case of ebola, until it breaks out of West Africa into a developed country and starts a global pandemic. By then it will be too late. Scientific research, let alone mass production of drugs or vaccines, takes lead time.

In the case of killer asteroids, we don’t even know what the risk is. We do know that a big asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We also know that there are a lot of asteroids orbiting out there big enough to do the same to us. We just don’t know where they are and whether or when they might hit us.

If we did our homework and searched the sky, we could know months or years in advance of any impending collision with Earth. We could save ourselves by mounting a mission to nudge a killer asteroid out of its present orbit and avoid a collision. But we can’t do that until we search the sky thoroughly and catalogue all the big asteroids out there that might do us harm. We can’t do that because, in 2007, Congress denied NASA the money needed to continue this mission.

Finishing the sky search and cataloging the results would cost a billion dollars. That’s less than 0.025% of the four trillion dollars (with a “t”) that, according to a recent book-length investigative report, we Yanks have spent in our collective cringe from terrorism since 9/11.

Do you see a theme here? Addressing serious unknown risks of catastrophic consequences requires (1) research, (2) preventive measures, (3) remediation, and (4), in the case of superbugs, strong regulation of unnecessary use of antibiotics. Points (1) through (3) take money—government money—and point (4) requires regulating private business.

Republicans are allergic to both spending by government and regulation. So if they capture the Senate next month, nothing will get done about these risks for at least the next two years. We Yanks will poke our collective heads in the sand and bury them deep.

More than that. Republicans appear to be allergic to knowing as well. Republicans have always been allergic to the truth—and to honest scientific inquiry—when it affects their monied backers’ economic interests.

Remember the tobacco “controversy”? As early as the 1960s, medical researchers (including those inside tobacco companies!) began to conclude that smoking causes lung cancer and contributes to heart disease. But the science wasn’t complete, and much of it was kept secret inside companies’ closed files, only to emerge later in private litigation.

The tobacco companies created a stone wall of denial and confusion. They couldn’t deny that there were plenty of dead bodies, but (they claimed) there was no “smoking gun.” Now, half a century later, we know beyond reasonable doubt that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in America today. So smoking is heavily regulated, but selling addiction, suffering and death is still legal.

Much the same thing happened with global warming. Suggestive research has been going on for decades. In 2000, Al Gore made it a campaign issue. He became the subject of the most concerted effort at political razzing in American history, at least before Obama became president. In 2005—nearly a decade ago!—the elite national academies of American science issued a Joint Statement that global warming is real and caused by burning fossil fuels.

But the fossil-fuel barons have taken precisely the same approach with global warming that tobacco firms had taken with lung and heart diseases. First they denied that global warming existed. Then, when scientific evidence of global warming became overwhelming, they denied that fossil-fuel burning is causing it. Now, when scientific evidence of human causation is becoming overwhelming, they are claiming that ameliorating global warming would hurt the economy and cost jobs. (They never seem to mention all the jobs that building a national renewable-energy infrastructure and a smart grid would create.) Republicans, of course, have been with the fossil-fuel barons all the way, parroting their lies and disinformation and making sure no regulation or attempt to ameliorate or remediate global warming touches their profits.

Now come the superbugs. Unbeknownst to most people, this problem also has been with us for decades, as Tuesday’s Frontline report on PBS revealed. As early as the 1970s—four decades ago!—our FDA knew that overuse of antibiotics in farming and animal husbandry was and is causing normal bacteria to evolve into superbugs to survive. The FDA moved to curtail that overuse, but a Mississippi senator in the pocket of the farm lobby threatened to kill FDA’s funding, and the FDA backed off. [See this Frontline special and set timer at 19:50.] Since that time, there has been no serious effort to regulate agribusiness’ rampant overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.

What were the results? There are two. First, people who live near large-scale animal farms—animal concentration camps, where antibiotics are widely overused—are getting superbug infections far more often than the general population. The mechanism is simple: animal manure containing antibiotics and the superbugs they cause to evolve get poured on open fields as fertilizer. When the manure dries out and the wind blows, the superbugs get blown to neighboring houses and communities.

A recent study shows just how closely the location of superbug infections and these factory farms match. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 13:00. For the bottom line, set timer at 15:00.] But the farm lobby stays in character. There is no “smoking gun,” it says, because you haven’t measured superbugs in the manure-infused soil. Andy why not? Because the soil lies on private property. The farmers, with advice from their lawyers, lobbyists and trade associations, won’t let the scientists collect or measure it.

The second result is that superbugs are appearing on the food we buy from supermarkets. For example, tests on frozen turkey sold in the Phoenix area revealed 20% with possibly pathogenetic E. coli (a species of bacteria commonly found in human feces). A third of those samples were resistant to one or more antibiotics. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 28:00.]

Will cooking the food kill the bad bacteria? Sure. But when you open the package, prepare the food, and touch your face, your sink, its spigots or your utensils, the bad bacteria can get on things that are not sterilized, and from there onto uncooked food such as salads, raw fruit, nuts and the like. So unless you are rigorous in washing your hands and utensils after every contact with store-bought meat or its packaging (if it comes from antibiotic-laden animals), you risk contaminating yourself and your loved ones with superbugs that can get into your gut, appear in your feces and then your bladder, your kidneys and your blood. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 08:50.]

If these bugs go all the way, they can kill you, and antibiotics can’t stop them. The days when a common urinary tract infection was a minor thing and easily curable are passing. In some locations, they may already be gone.

And so it goes. This November’s election offers a clear choice between two parties. One wants to put our heads in the sand and keep them there, as long as its backers are making money. The other wants to address known and unknown risks as best it can, even if doing so costs a little money and requires a little regulation.

You can ignore these risks if you like. Chances are they won’t touch your family, at least in your lifetime. But before you do, take a good look at the children suffering or dying, horribly, in the best hospitals in the middle of the nation with the most advanced medicine on Earth.

Then think about the dinosaurs. They didn’t think much about asteroids, plagues or superbugs, either. Now they’re gone.

Evolution gave us the brains to think about these things and even do something about them, in order to survive. None of the precautions we could take against these real risks would cost much money.

Yet the party that cares only about money won’t bother to take them. Or it’s ideologically allergic to the regulation we would need. Republicans would rather deny the risks’ existence or downplay their severity, as has been their and their backers’ consistent practice for about four decades—with smoking, air pollution, water pollution, radioactive releases from nuclear power plants, global warming, fossil fuels’ limited reserves, the environmental dangers of fracking, and now the creation of superbugs.

If we fail to use our brains to insure our species’ survival, we are forfeiting our chief evolutionary advantage over the dinosaurs. Your vote this November will help determine whether we do just that.

Footnote 1. I hate to quote That Idiot Rumsfeld, whose absolutely abysmal mismanagement of our War in Iraq caused us untold suffering and led to the rise of IS. But the phrase is apt and memorable. It may be the most sensible two words he ever uttered.

Footnote 2. The second part of Tuesday’s Frontline program shows how superbugs, possibly hospital acquired, killed a young boy after he had successfully undergone a bone-marrow transplant to cure a congenital condition. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 044:50.] An earlier Frontline feature shows how superbugs attacked a perfectly healthy young girl, eventually requiring a lung transplant. She survived, but her young life has been changed permanently. Your kids could be next, as so-called “nosocomial” (hospital-acquired) infections with superbugs proliferate.

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