Monday, October 13, 2014

[rant] Ebola: Why We Need Research Funding

It's no surprise that folks who think the government should not spend money on anything have targeted such agencies as the National Institutes of Health. After all, the private sector has created the world's best health care, right? (sarcasm glyph) But public health is about a whole lot more than decent sanitation to prevent typhoid or antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. It's about continuing research into prevention -- vaccinations -- and treatment of diseases we don't face in our ordinary lives. Like Ebola, once viewed as a serious but remote disease, something to use for action/thriller movies like Outbreak.

People who suffer from rare disease know all too well that the private sector -- for profit pharmaceutical companies -- rarely invest their research dollars when there is a small market for a drug or a population of patients who can't afford expensive treatments. Ebola had both strikes against it, plus it happened to people "over there" -- black people, at that. We are all one world, and if compassion doesn't inspire us to address diseases like this with the same fierce dedication as those closer to home, than the ease of transmission across oceans and continents should. "Over there" can be our own backyards in a matter of days. We have a much more robust health care system than do the African nations where Ebola deaths are mounting, but we as communities are just as vulnerable. Here, as there, those who care for the sick are not only most critical in stopping the spread of the disease but are the most vulnerable in terms of becoming its next victims.

What if we as a nation, with all our scientific and medical knowledge, backed by the financial resources of our government -- the way we collectively fund such things -- had continued our search for effective treatments and vaccines? What if we had been able to ship those treatments to Africa when the current Ebola outbreak started? What if every health care worker -- there and here -- who might come into contact with an Ebola patient were vaccinated? How many lives would have already been saved?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has "slowed down" research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It's not like we suddenly woke up and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'" Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

It's not just the production of a vaccine that has been hampered by money shortfalls. Collins also said that some therapeutics to fight Ebola "were on a slower track than would've been ideal, or that would have happened if we had been on a stable research support trajectory."

"We would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference," he said.

Test tub design by Heatherawalls, public domain.

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