The Spark

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

Without a public health service, flu kills

Dec 15, 2003

This year's flu season started early with at least 20 deaths of children so far and cases widespread, particularly in western states. Millions are considered at high risk. More than 30,000 people die annually in this country of flu, which is short for influenza. But doses of the flu vaccine are in short supply.

The two companies making flu vaccines, Aventis Pasteur and Chiron, reduced production of this vaccine to 83 million doses this year from 95 million last year. Yet the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 185 million people could use doses this year. Children under two, the elderly and those with certain medical conditions are especially at risk. But all children and almost everyone over 50 would benefit if the vaccines were widely available.

The companies did not produce enough flu vaccine for one simple reason: because they don't make big profits on it. Since they don't control its patent, they can't charge their usual inflated prices.

To make matters worse, the vaccine produced for this year apparently isn't effective on one strain of the flu – the one that has hit 75% of the cases seen so far. Something like this is bound to happen when not enough money or resources are put into the effort.

The public health system in this country is absolutely insufficient to deal with epidemics. And local institutions that could be auxiliaries to the public health system have been cutting back. Local school systems, for example, have cut nursing staffing. It's true this country has federally funded Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the National Institutes for Health in Washington. But delivery of health services has been left to a private health care system in which more than 40 million people have no care whatsoever and thousands of children fail to get necessary vaccinations every single year.

In the world's richest country, health care is not a right. To stay alive and healthy remains a privilege for those who can afford it. Even for something as ordinary as the flu.