The Spark

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

A vaccine against greedy companies?

Apr 15, 2002

Currently, there is a nationwide shortage of vaccines needed to prevent childhood disease.

Last summer, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) asked doctors to hold off on giving the tetanus/diphtheria shot to incoming high school freshmen in order to save doses for people who need it more. Since then, shortages have surfaced with other vaccines, most recently varicella (chicken pox); MMRII, (measles, mumps and rubella); diphtheria/tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) or DtaP; and Prevnar, a newer vaccine used to protect against strep throat, pneumonia and meningitis.

Children are supposed to get a series of four shots as infants to prevent diseases which once killed millions. But doctors are delaying the fourth shot for some because others haven’t even got the first shot.

For more than a century, we have known as a society the vast benefits of public health. It means sanitary water, trash and garbage removal and vaccinations. All of these combined work to prevent disease. And it was disease prevention and adequate diet that were responsible for the rapid increase in life expectancy.

Smallpox, which killed millions each year, was the first disease to be vaccinated against (1796). Two hundred years later, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) declared the disappearance of smallpox from the earth. Polio, which usually strikes children between the ages of 5 and 10, was eradicated from the western hemisphere in 1994. In 1952, there were nearly 58,000 cases of polio in the United States. Today, we no longer see polio, measles, whooping cough and other diseases because children have been immunized.

So why is there a shortage of vaccines today? In a word, profit. Where once 30 companies were producing vaccines, now there are only four. This is partly the result of mergers. But, more important, this is tied to the system of patents which lets a company charge outrageously high prices on medicines while they are still under patent. But when a patent ends, a generic version can be produced and sold more cheaply so profit goes down for the manufacturers.

Last year, drug manufacturer Wyeth-Ayerst stopped making tetanus, the vaccine which wards off lockjaw, leaving only one manufacturer to produce the vaccine. Doug Petkus, the company spokesman, said that the company periodically decides what is “worthwhile” to continue making. For Wyeth, “worthwhile” clearly does not mean keeping people healthy.

Drug companies are no different from other capitalist businesses. They product to make a profit – not to satisfy a need. But drug companies – precisely because the patent system gives them more means to charge whatever price they want – make more profits than any other industry. In 1999, they admitted to making 27.5 billion dollars in profit.

There’s a name for a system which believes it’s not “worthwhile” to produce something which has been proven to save lives and to do it cheaply. Capitalism.