The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Great Britain:
Tuberculosis, poverty and the decline of public health

Jun 25, 2001

At the beginning of April, there was an outbreak of tuberculosis at a school in Leicester, an old industrial city in the center of Great Britain. TB is a disease which was supposed to have been eradicated decades ago.

The outbreak was ignored until a confidential government report was leaked to the press. According to the report, 31 children were diagnosed in April with the disease; 60 others were infected by tuberculosis bacteria and 170 children showed symptoms of having been exposed. According to the report, there is no doubt that the children caught the disease right in the school.

The increase of tuberculosis in Great Britain has been spectacular and getting much worse. In the dozen years between 1987 and 1999, the number of reported cases increased by 21%. But in the year 2000 alone, the increase was almost 11%.

Government commentators have the nerve to argue that a large part of the increase in Great Britain occurred among immigrants from poor countries, in order to deny their responsibility in the worsening situation. But they avoid mentioning the fact that 44% of the cases are people of British heritage. Nor do they explain why the principal concentrations of the disease are found in the poor neighborhoods of the three biggest working class areas in the country –London, Birmingham and Glasgow.

The politicians who have been in power, including the Labor Party of Tony Blair, have an overwhelming responsibility for this situation. Their general policy, which favors the profits of the bourgeoisie, pushes a larger part of the working class into poverty, either through unemployment or low-paid jobs. Moreover, they have reduced social expenditures, including for public health, in order to free up an increasing part of state resources for the profit of the bourgeoisie. This has led to a worsening of sanitary conditions in housing and the cities, as well as decreases in preventative treatment and health care.

In the case of tuberculosis, for example, the government abandoned preventative vaccination of school children between 10 and 15 years old in 1999. The official reason given was the lack of sufficient vaccine. Now they say they will restore the vaccination program –but not until the end of 2002!

After diagnosing the first case of tuberculosis at this school in Leicester in August 2000, health officials waited until March 2001, or seven months later, before testing all the teachers and children at the school, with the disastrous result that we now see. They don't bother justifying their inaction. But there are reasons: budget reductions which have devastated public health services, as well as the "turn toward the market" of public health, which absorbs an increasing share of resources, both human and financial. The British government leaves it up to the pharmaceutical companies to decide how much vaccine will be produced. And since vaccine is no longer under patent protection, the pharmaceutical companies aren't interested in producing it.

Blair carried out his recent electoral campaign claiming that "the market is the way of the future." For the poor, it can be the way to the cemetery.