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.
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?