As it did with the Paris Climate Accord, the U.S. appears to be on the very brink of dissociating itself from international epidemiological efforts—and starting its new pogroms, er, programs at home. The time to respond is NOW. And we post an update.
The following is a fact-inclusive opinion piece by regular SBCHealthNet contributor Tim Pfaff:
NEW: Update at the end of the post
American news has been world news at least since Hiroshima, when the balance of power tipped in a way it hadn’t before. And even as Russia and China competitively compete to become the new, superseding world power, all eyes remain on the gaudy spectacle of America (as Russia and China, busier than ever in this brave new world of opportunity, would prefer). Sometimes reporting becomes, simply by dint of that which is reported on, hortatory.
World, be on notice, biological warfare in all its forms, natural and man-made, has just become your problem. As in the wake of 9/11 but with grittier determination now, freedom fries have again trumped French fries. The land of the free has exited Paris for good, or so it would appear.
It’s already old news that the American executive—literally, the increasingly toxic tributaries of the executive branch—has been re-purposed to defeat each of its individual department’s missions. Their sundry chosen leaders have proceeded with the blinding speed on their crusade. Well before the Americans, out of sheer existential reluctance slowly awaken from this nightmare, the rest of the world made the rational decision to believe that what is happening is what is happening.
Never in our lifetimes has the concept of public health seemed punier, less defended, more inadequate, and even inviting of disaster. So here we take a peek (since a look would be too much) at communal health, world health, not so much as it is understood—for understanding itself is that from which the administration has turned away—but because the larger world needs to be warned, and to take appropriate action.
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America’s got the flu, bad, and it’s whining about it loudly and happy to call it the Australian flu even though it knows it’s not Australian. Just that the bug's attacking it from without, where the enemy has taken up permanent residence.
In a February 2 article, “Flu Patients Arrive in Droves, and a Hospital Rolls out the ‘Surge Tent,’” the New York Times—the newspaper of broken record even American liberals are turning on—reported about America’s worst flu season this century.
The report was actually from Allentown, Pennsylvania, specifically focusing on the Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest. If you want to skip the read, the main line in the story is probably this, attributed to Dr. Andrew C. Miller:
“Thus far, he said, this has not been the worst flu season he’s seen, but this year’s seem sicker. It may yet get worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that flu hospitalization rates across the country were the highest ever seen at this point in the season since tracking began in 2005.”
The article is longer than your current typical Presidential briefing, with lots of photos and even a graph, but basically it just says people are sick sick sick, sicker than they remember from previous flus. I say that devoid of condescension. A flu of normal mega-tonnage reduces me to childish whimpering and flight to daytime TV.
But what caught my attention was that the action was in the headline. Despite having given countless flu shots—the hospital worked a drive-though service that could handle 15 lines of cars!—the number of people pouring into the hospital with symptoms they wanted treated soared.
It required, the Times went on to say, “dragging out the “surge tent.”
“The Band Aid-colored structure in the parking lot — an inflatable military-style hospital ward a bit like a bouncy castle — is outfitted with cots, oxygen tanks and heart monitors.
“Sandwiched between the ambulance helipad and the E.R. doors, the tent is mostly used as a holding area for walk-in patients who need monitoring. The extra space lowers the risk of infections in the main waiting room when the coughing and sneezing is at its worst.”
If you want to freak out a 2018 American, just haul out the tent. Tents are for refugees. Civilian-wise, anyway, Tents’r’not’us.
More upsetting to Americans outside Allentown were, I suspect (moving into conjecture here) the many communities that reported running out of the flu vaccine. More Orwellian, the elderly in many midland U.S. states—your Michigans, Wisconsin’s, and Iowas, the “heartlands” of family and Christian values—have been denied flu shots because of their inability to provide evidence of current employment, this despite the hordes of Americans who had “come out or retirement” to work at McDonalds and Costco to make ends meet.
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If your taste in epidemic-disaster writing runs more toward Stephen King and you have not, thus far, been sufficiently aroused, we refer you to an un-pay-walled review in the January 25 London Review of Books. The always-brilliant Gavin Francis reviews Laurie Finney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, augmenting that already lurid story with his own accounts of treating victims (they died) of the current flu in the UK. It’s a doozy--Edgar Allen Poe-grade stuff.
Now for the bad news
Back in America, in a February 2 blog post, The Atlantic leads with “The CDC Is About to Fall Off a Funding Cliff.” As readers of this blog surely know, the CDC is the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], a sub-department within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Trump White House has nominated and the GOP-controlled Senate confirmed and appointed a roster of cabinet secretaries committed to hobbling if not outright decimating the departments and missions they were appointed to serve. While concerned Americans have envisioned almost all those heads on pikes, only one has rolled: Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Tom Price.
The good doctor resigned under pressure after charges of inappropriate chartering of private jets for “work purposes” and left with clouds of suspicion of other charges of (greater) corruption following him like exhaust fumes. He has been replaced by former Eli Lilly drug company executive Alex Azar.
But here’s the thing
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal from January 19, cited in The Atlantic’s story, the CDC is planning to “scale back or discontinue its work to prevent infectious-disease epidemics and other health threats in 39 foreign countries because it expects funding for the work to end.”
Approximately $1 billion of a Congress appropriation from 2014 was allocated for assisting developing countries in detecting and fighting infectious diseases. The money was shared between the CDC and USAID, through 2019. Kiss it good-bye, but make sure you use a dental dam when you do.
Among the countries to be cut off are the Central African Republic, currently in its eighth Ebola outbreak, and China, which outputs new bird flu strains at industrial levels. Here’s from The Atlantic, verbatim:
“These changes would make the world—and the United States—more vulnerable to a pandemic. ‘We’ll leave the field open to microbes,’ says Tom Frieden, a former CDC director who now heads an initiative called Resolve to Save Lives. ‘The surveillance systems will die, so we won’t know if something happens. The lab networks won’t be built, so if something happens, we won’t know what it is. We can’t be safe if the world isn’t safe. You can’t pull up the drawbridge and expect viruses not to travel.’”
The Atlantic adds important details about the U.S.'s apparent moves to remove itself from the Global Health Security Agenda in much the same way it has walked away from the Paris Climate Accord. To wit: “Last October, at a meeting in Kampala, Uganda, Tim Ziemer, the White House senior director for global health security, confirmed that the United States wants to ensure that GHSA is extended to 2024. ‘Distance alone no longer provides protection from disease outbreaks,’ he noted.”
What’s missing, The Atlantic points out, is a matching financial commitment. If there is one, it will be included in a federal budget to be released February 12. But as in so many other government agencies, the insecurity alone is driving the professional staff to leave in search of more reliable work elsewhere.
If you’re an American, you can call the members of the U.S. Congress whose constituents you are. Surely you already have the number on speed dial, but in case, it’s +1.202.225-3121.
If you’re elsewhere in the world, particularly in one of the imminently defunded 39 countries, the message from Washington would appear to be: "So long. It’s been good to know you. And y’all be careful and wash your hands, just not like we just did.”
UPDATE: At the moment, a more pressing matter at the CDC may be “Who’s minding the store?” This time asked with a somewhat more literal slant.
On January 31, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the CDC, resigned after Politico reported that she had purchased tobacco stock after taking the position. In fact, she is said to have purchased tens of thousands of dollars of stock, only including stock in Japan Tobacco, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies that retails four of its brands in the U.S. Other investments were in pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck and Bayer, and health-insurance company Humana.
It gets better. The following day she toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, where research on tobacco’s harmful effects on human health is carried out. After lamenting cigarette smoking as the nation’s leading cause of preventable death, she vowed to "continue to use proven strategies to help smokers quit and to prevent children from using any tobacco products."
The statement from the CDC-governing Department of Health and Human Services put it this way: "Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC Director. Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period."
Politico noted that the resignation and announcement came less than 48 hours after incoming HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that henceforth no ethically questionable behavior would be tolerated in the department. Politico added, “’Alex has a really low tolerance for drama,’ a person familiar with Azar’s thinking said.”
Specifically about the Fitzgerald resignation: