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Friday, October 14, 2005

Medical Maladies...

There’s a polio outbreak in an Amish community in Minnesota. I had hoped that the disease had been totally annihilated but after a little research I have found that this isn’t the case. There are countries that still struggle with the devastating disease. I suppose that the distrust of the United States has exacerbated the problem. Some Islamic clerics believe that the vaccine is an American plot to give their people AIDS or to make them infertile.

There are vaccines available to prevent polio and the World Health Organization (WHO) puts forth a lot of effort in helping with health issues like polio around the world. Whether or not the world will see the eradication of this debilitating disease seems to be directly tied to personal choices of whether or not to receive vaccinations or socio-economic conditions.

Currently there is another looming global medical situation in the making. The H5N1 flu virus which is also referred to as the avian flu seems to be on the move. Currently this virus has not mutated yet to a human to human form of transmission and is still transmitted from bird to human. But history tells us that this is only a matter of time. All flu viruses mutate. We just don’t know when, where or what form they will take.

Tamiflu is a drug that has been proven to help treat the avian flu. A vaccine has yet to be developed for this disease which can lead to the death of the patient. One of the biggest problems with Tamiflu is its availability and expense. The drug costs about $60 for ten tablets and how many tablets a patient may need is solely determined on a case by case basis. This cost most certainly makes it unavailable for poor populations. Additionally, there are many countries that do not have the resources to provide this expensive drug to their citizens.

There’s a company in India that claims it has created a generic version of Roche’s Tamiflu. The problem is that Roche Holding AG owns the patent on Tamiflu and refuses to license generic versions of the drug. The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has requested Roche to release its patent to no avail. As we all know, generic versions of drugs help to reduce costs tremendously as well as increasing the available supplies. It has been reported that Tamiflu is currently being stockpiled in the United States.

I feel that there is an enormous ethical question here. In light of what can happen with flu pandemics, such as the possibility of millions of human lives at stake, is it ethical for a drug company to withhold information, knowledge, and patents from the world markets? It seems to me that the Roche organization could afford to share some of its wealth in such a humanitarian outreach. I would think that the publicity alone would be worth more than any generated revenue from expensive prime time television ads.

I don’t begrudge anyone making a profit and I think that it’s important for drug companies to stay in business so that they can develop new drugs that help to eradicate diseases. At least that’s what I hope drives their research. You know, the desire to find cures and to save countless lives… and not a desire to profit from human frailty.



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