When death is in the air

by
02 November 2006

ONE OF the greatest factors in the Western approach to life has been the removal of the immediate threat of death. Good diet, good natal care, access to a large range of medicines, and the absence of warfare have combined to push the appointment with death another decade or so into the future. This lack of a day-to-day encounter with death, welcome though that is, makes the population no less susceptible to panic. So, this week, the country appears to be gripped by a fear caused by 60 deaths in south-east Asia.

It remains relatively heedless of the 12,000 deaths from influenza which already occur in the UK each year, or the 110,000 deaths from heart disease, caused largely by smoking and/or obesity. Fears of an avian influenza pandemic are not to be dismissed. Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation suggests that there is still no evidence that the avian flu virus (H5N1) has mutated far enough to enable human-to-human infection; nor, if it mutates, that it will continue to be deadly.

A central element of the Government's pandemic preparations is the administration of vaccines, when they are available, and anti-viral drugs, of which the Government has ordered several million doses, at a cost of £200 million. It ordered these quite recently, however, and is some way down the queue at the pharmacy counter. Several of the other customers have started to bang on the counter, complaining that the pharmacist, in this instance the drug company Roche, is serving too slowly. Roche says it has increased production, but has no intention of releasing its patent to enable the other chemists along the road to make the drugs.

After the debate in recent weeks on euthanasia and the sanctity of life, it might be fruitful to reflect on how far we have allowed commercial interest to dictate who will suffer and who will be saved. This tussle has happened before, over the production of patented anti-retroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. It will be interesting to see whether Western Europe will have to wait several years and see countless deaths before winning the argument for cheap, generic forms of the drugs, as did sub-Saharan Africa.

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An advantage of the current speculation is that it provides some figures to work with. A team at Nottingham University has calculated (guessed?) that, if avian flu took hold in this country, it could cause an eight-per-cent drop in the UK's GDR, i.e. a loss of £95 billion in a year. If we take this as the budget for protecting ourselves against flu deaths, we might perhaps find we have £105 million left in loose change, the sum needed to save the lives of nine million people facing death by starvation in and around Malawi.

All individuals and governments have to shore themselves up against various threats, but exaggerated fear is not conducive to clear thinking. Someone must question priorities. If there is money to spare for avoiding a disease that might never happen, why is it not used to tackle the diseases and conditions that exist and claim thousands of victims?

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