The Spark

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

Medical progress and the race for profit

May 26, 2003

While SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), the form of pneumonia that appeared in China, affects several thousand people throughout the world and continues to spread, urgent work carried out by a network of researchers have already borne fruit: within a month, research advanced sufficiently to identify the origin and nature of this new disease.

Scientists emphasized that this doesn't mean they will soon provide a vaccine, but it's still a new encouragement for those in the struggle against this epidemic.

The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services announced that the test for the disease would soon be "accessible to scientists and laboratories in the entire world." It's the least that could be expected. Research carried out in different countries should rapidly be put at the disposal of the world's population.

Unfortunately, such a step is far from the rule in today's society. The right to treatment is too often accessible only to those who can pay. And if the spread of SARS hadn't threatened the industrialized countries, including the richest layers of the population, it's likely there would have been no rush to look into the problem.

Diseases which cause thousands of deaths each year in the poor countries – like bilharziasis, malaria and sleeping sickness – are often ignored by the pharmaceutical industry. Even when treatments exist, they often aren't available because of their cost.

For several years an epidemic of meningitis has affected part of Africa, including Burkina Faso. A report at the beginning of April counted 998 deaths (out of 6,234 known cases) since January. This was four times more than the known number of SARS deaths, and these figures are certainly much too low, for they don't take into account those who had the disease and died before being able to reach a health center.

Vaccines do exist, even for the new strain of meningitis identified last year which has expanded rapidly. But each dose costs $5, twenty times the price of the vaccine adapted only for the old forms of the disease. A spokesman for the World Health Organization, who tried to negotiate prices with the pharmaceutical laboratories, said last September, "It's simply too expensive for the African countries most affected by meningitis."

So, many people will die this year of an epidemic against which there exists a means of prevention. Not only does the poverty to which capitalist society reduces them make them more susceptible to disease, but vaccination is not available to them.

In the medical domain as in all others, in order to respond to the most urgent needs of the whole of the population, it's necessary to construct a society where scientific research and production are organized as a function of needs and not of profit. The choices made by capitalist society often mean death.