Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"La Grippe"

My old Yankee grandfather kept a journal for over 65 years. He started these journals in 1891, at age 17 and only stopped when death claimed him at age 85. I have become the caretaker of these journals and they are one of my dearest possessions. They not only have been a window into what made my grandfather the man, husband and father he became but have given me a front row seat into a time and place where life was surely not simpler or easier but had a humanity to it that today has seemingly vanished.

Most of his entries are a quick note about the weather, temperature included, as he was a farm boy, in Maine, and daily life was tied inextricably to those things. The rest of a day's entry might be a note about a village happening; a death, birth, sickness, accidents. The ones that most stood out for me, in many cases, was the sense of extended family. When one person was ill the women in the village took turns sitting with them, bringing food, helping to maintain their households for them, as well as continuing with their own duties. How many had a soothing voice and a gentle hand in their last moments? Death came as the expected end to a life, and it came, ushered in, not by the flat line of a machine, but with dignity and respect from an entire community. This was insurance.

Now, in the 21st century I marvel at all the wonderful advances we have made in the field of medicine. Vaccines that would have prevented so many childhood deaths a hundred years ago, are now a matter of course for newborns and young children. No longer do mothers have to fear the spots of measles or the red cheeks of scarlet fever. No longer does a sneeze or cough perhaps herald diphtheria. No longer is a heart attack an automatic death sentence. Even stroke today is not as debilitating as it once was. But it has not been medicines alone which have brought us this new and improved world. Improved sanitation, improved (perhaps) diets, better lifestyles and a greater knowledge of our germ infested world have played a large part in keeping us healthy longer.

Have we paid a price for this? We certainly have, and it is coming home to haunt us now. Like kids in a candy store, a child with a new toy, we cannot wait to use it and use it and use it until it is not worth using anymore. The wind up key on the toy has broken or the candy is all gone. Armed with the latest in germ killing products we scour our houses and bodies, pump them full of antibiotics, spray, scrub, disinfect, exterminate any and all germs which might threaten an invasion either of our person or our home. We have come to expect new and improved everything, and when we are told that those new and improved everythings are no match for a new and improved germ, we panic. We have sanitized ourselves and our environment so much that we no longer have much of a natural immunity to anything. What my grandmother would have referred to as being "poison neat."

In 1918 there was a Pandemic of the Spanish Influenza, or "La Grippe" a virulent strain of avian influenza. Worldwide, between 25 and 50 million people died from this disease. More US soldiers died from the flu than had been killed in the recently ended Great War (WWI). Even though it did not emerge in Spain, it was that country that had one of the worst early outbreaks of it. By 1918, 8 million people had been infected and Spain sought to reduce panic by describing it only as the flu , "La grippe". Would inoculations have helped to prevent such widespread death? Most surely they would, but we did not have much of anything in 1918. Even some sanitation ideas had yet to take hold as normal practice. We were in the infancy of the germ fighting business. Big Pharma had yet to really arrive.

Today we hear that we may have, yet again, another Pandemic. and as in the first go round it is a "bird" (avian) flu. And I hate to tell you this but we might as well be back in 1918 as we have not a clue how to prevent it or to "neutralize" it. It is a shape shifter and can mutate faster than you can say Chicken Little. So where are all those researchers at "Big Pharma" that we rely on to stay on top of these things for us? Are they too busy padding their expense accounts, developing new drugs that are guaranteed to kill you or give you side effects more harmful than your condition? Too busy being published behind flawed clinical trials? Surely the monies taken in by these giants of corporate greed can cover the cost of research, can't they?

Well apparently research is not high on their list of priorities. They will get theirs and you and I will get...well, that remains to be seen. Please know, however, that what the pharmaceutical companies spend on marketing and administration "dwarfs what they spend" on research, so do not look for a "bird flu" vaccine anytime soon. And, if and when they develop one, will you be able to afford it?

You have a market based health care system hand in hand with a market based pharmaceutical industry and covered altogether by investor-owned insurance companies. 40 million Americans are without any sort of health insurance, and none of the above want to lose their profit margins so, the best we can hope for is that the Bird Flu decides it is tired of mutating or the pharmaceutical companies decide to find a conscience.

Susan B. Goodwin