The chronic greed of medicine

Throughout the media frenzy surrounding the spread of Ebola virus in West Africa, some expert always reminds us that Americans need not worry; none of us will die of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever. Because of that, we fundamentally do not care. Cancer kills us. Heart disease kills us. These are the diseases that take our loved ones and elicit our donations. I think instead—and it is not an unfair assumption—that the goal of researching and treating deadly diseases should be to save as many lives as possible. Ebola serves as a reminder of the reality of disease outside our sterile bubble.

The World Health Organization reported 4,350 cases of EHF and 2,226 resulting deaths as of Sept. 7. Their current models predict that the outbreak will last nine months, with 20,000 cases by that time. These estimates are conservative. Models by some American epidemiologists suggest that the crisis could last twice as long and be many times more severe.

Such a major outbreak, however, only accounts for a small proportion of worldwide deaths from communicable diseases. According to WHO estimates, nearly 10 million people died of infectious conditions in 2012. The vast majority of these were in the poorest nations in the world.

I will not pontificate on the need to solve world poverty. The fact is that countries most susceptible to infectious disease are also least equipped to contain and treat such diseases.

It is no coincidence that the only two infected Americans both survived a condition for which the mortality rate is over 50 percent. They had access to the best possible care at Emory University Hospital. To compare, director of the infectious disease unit at Emory University Hospital Bruce Ridner said that hospitals in West Africa lack the basic equipment to do necessary blood and electrolyte counts.

The disparity in medical infrastructure is mirrored in medical research. Worldwide spending on cancer research from 2004-2005 was over $18 billion. Oncology is a massive industry. Funding drives, awareness campaigns and various walks to “end cancer” are ubiquitous. I am not suggesting that non-communicable diseases like cancer are undeserving of attention or funding, but not of such a grossly disproportionate amount.

Chronic conditions are more profitable. Be it heart disease or erectile dysfunction, these maladies often require treatment for a person’s entire life. Vaccines and antibiotics are not profitable, especially when distributed to people who cannot pay for them—that is, those who need them most.

It is worth noting that Ebola––for all the panic and death it has caused––is tame compared to many other viruses, since the current strain only transmits by close contact. It will not spread to the United States. Due to the absence of new antibiotics and proper infrastructure in developing nations, however, drug-resistant varieties of historical killers like tuberculosis may pose as a real threat.

The HIV/AIDS crisis stands in evidence of this threat––and how quickly we forget about it when an epidemic is not raging on our soil. If global empathy is insufficient, self-interest should motivate us to look beyond ice bucket challenges and celebrity-promoted 5Ks. We need to focus on the sinister microbes that cause millions of annual deaths; the ones that have the potential to give rise to a pandemic that would make Ebola seem insignificant.