Ebola News Round-up for a Fear-Free Weekend

Now that New York City has documented its first case of Ebola, it’s time for Americans to freak out. Okay, I exaggerate. However, I have been completely turned off by the hysteria emanating from the mainstream media looking to increase ratings and elected officials playing politics, knowing there are midterm elections in a few weeks. As we know, politicians and partisans cannot let a good crisis go to waste. I have shunned all cable news these past few weeks. I now prefer to get my information from the cooler heads at NPR (Morning Edition), PBS (The News Hour) and the BBC. Actually, the best source for information about Ebola can be found on the World Health Organization’s web site. (Imagine that!)

This is not to say that people shouldn’t be worried because it is a scary virus and taking precautions, such as washing your hands, is always a good idea. Furthermore, it is obvious from recent events in Dallas, that the United States is ill-prepared to deal with this disease. That should change as experts are called in to educate hospitals and their staff about how to interact with infected patients, dispose of contaminated material and bio-hazard waste, and handle lab specimen properly. Coordinated protocols for health care workers traveling to and from affected regions is a must.

A big part of the fear originates from the lack of trust for those in charge, and some of it is quite warranted. However, fear is overcome by knowledge. You can diminish the anxiety you feel by seeking information from reliable sources, not solely from those whom you align with ideologically – be it on the left or the right. Below are some articles and resources you may find helpful. There will no doubt be more cases of Ebola diagnosed in this country, but you are more likely to be killed by a shark, or by lightning, or in a car crash (that one much more likely), than from Ebola.


What’s My Risk of Catching Ebola?


There is no better resource about Ebola than the World Health Organization. Information is power. Information reduces fear and anxiety.

Ebola facts from the World Health Organization

FAQs about Ebola


Primary focus of response must be to halt spread of Ebola in West Africa – UN

“As the international community mobilizes on all fronts to combat the unfolding Ebola outbreak, the primary emphasis must continue to be on stopping the transmission of the virus within Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three hardest-hit countries, United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) experts said today.”


Some examples of needless panic:

The Most Ignorant American Ebola Panic of the Moment


However, there are legitimate reasons to be afraid. Below is an interesting study that explains the panic.

One Study to Explain Ebola Panic

“The experiment’s takeaway was this: When the perception of risk increases, the feeling of risk increases. This lesson is instructive in thinking about why some pockets of America are overreacting to the threat of Ebola.

To our collective credit, the American people are thinking pretty calmly about the disease’s threat. Just 24 percent of respondents to a recent Gallup Poll said they were worried about contracting Ebola. But for some communities who see themselves as being just a few degrees of separation away from Ebola, the threat has provoked panic. To extend the metaphor from the Michigan experiment, these communities are being sneezed on or are acting out of fear of being sneezed on.”


But there is some good news! Congratulations, Nina!

Nina Pham, Dallas Nurse, Declared Free of Ebola and Released From Hospital


And more good news!

Seems all it takes for vaccine research and production to kick into overdrive is for Ebola to impact the developed world. Funny how that works…

Millions of doses of experimental Ebola vaccines will be produced by the end of 2015, the World Health Organization has announced


Big Pharma’s race to develop an Ebola vaccine

“Are these companies just profiting off misery? As The New York Times pointed out yesterday, testing and scaling up the production of drugs takes real money, and bringing a new vaccine to market can cost as much as $1.5 billion.

This often pays off for Big Pharma, as patented, brand-name drugs can be worth worth billions, For diseases like Ebola, though, it can take a humanitarian disaster to create the necessary urgency to act.

Sure we can be cynical. But to view the success of stocks like Bavarian Nordic and NewLink Genetics as the profits of doom is to ignore the economic realities that go into discovering and administering a real-world cure”.


Stephanie Cutter: Ebola vaccine research was cut in half, and more cuts are coming

Perhaps cuts to Ebola research, due to budget cuts for research at the NIH, should never have been made. It appears more cuts are on the horizon, per the sequester…perhaps Congress should reconsider that one.


Big data put to good use:

Big data could help: Mobile-phone records would help combat the Ebola epidemic.

“CDRs can therefore tell epidemiologists where people have been, when—and perhaps also where they are headed, based on their past movements. Analysing the records has proved helpful in tracking the spread of diseases on previous occasions.”


Why Ebola won’t go airborne

The video in the above link explains it well. I recommend watching it.

(I tried to embed the video, but I couldn’t get it to show up. Sorry.)


Now that you know the odds of catching Ebola, have some facts, are aware of the misinformation out there as well as what is being done/can be done to deal with any future cases, and hearing the news that Nina Pham is Ebola-free, chill a little and enjoy an Ebola-fear-free weekend. Peace!

The AMA is Wrong

A few weeks ago, the American Medical Association voted to declare obesity a disease.

…members of the AMA’s House of Delegates rejected cautionary advice from their own experts and extended the new status to a condition that affects more than one-third of adults and 17% of children in the United States.

Why, I wondered, would the esteemed AMA reject cautionary advice from their own experts about declaring obesity a disease?

There may be several reasons, and sadly, not one of them get to the crux of the matter.

With so many people qualifying as “obese,” there’s money to be made with this classification. If you have a disease, you need to be treated.

As is, the diet industry is already making money hand over fist, with few success stories The lack of success stories is due to the fact diets don’t work. Long-term, meaningful changes MAY work. But cutting caloric intake, reaching a goal weight, and then resuming normal eating habits is a recipe for failure in keeping weight off.

Instead, the US spends over 60 BILLION dollars a year on dieting.


The lack of success stories is telling: it’s our culture. It’s the priorities. It’s the fact that it’s a lot cheaper for most families to buy processed foods than it is for them to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, fresh meats, etc.

But that the AMA ignored the advice of experts and declared obesity is darker and more sinister. It’s about the money for Big Pharma. After all, now that obesity is an illness, pharmaceutical companies can start making more medicines to “treat” the new “illness.”


It’s inaccurate:

It distracts from the real issues:

It’s a win for the weight cycling industry

Unfortunately, what’s good for the weight cycling industry isn’t necessarily good for patients: 

This new categorization has an interesting “benefit”–the ACA (aka “Obamacare”) will cover treatments for obesity.

But even that’s a very questionable “benefit.” This still seems, once again, to be all about the money.

If we, as a society, wanted to address obesity, we’d quench the many food deserts within our country. We’d make fresher, healthier foods cheaper. It still costs more to buy bananas, broccoli, or apples than it does to buy a box of Mac n’ Cheese. We would stop blaming people for being obese and realize that there are many reasons why some people are heavier than others.

We also wouldn’t equate thin with good health.  This is one of the most harmful lies we tell ourselves, at least in my opinion.

But hey, it’s all about the Benjamin’s (or Franklin’s, thanks DH!) in the end, right?


Prescription Filled: Getting What We Want from Big Pharma

Not long ago, I went down to my neighborhood chain drugstore to get my prescription filled.  The medicine was a common, ordinary prescription medication, but I was scared. You see, I’m one of the “uninsured”. Or, as Randites like to call it, “self-insured.” Or, as I like to call it, “screwed.”

Might as well have been standing in line with Mr. Jimmy.

The pharm tech typed into her computer, trying to divine from their system how much the prescription would set me back.

“A hundred and seventeen dollars”, she finally told me.

I blanched. “How about generic?” I asked.

“That is generic”, she answered. “And I gave you credit for our store discount, since you’re uninsured.” She almost whispered the last word, as if it were somehow dirty.

I needed the meds quickly and didn’t have time to shop around. Not that I was likely to find a better deal, even assuming I could coax other pharm techs to check prices for me. I steeled myself and ponied up, trying not to think of the fact that this was more than half of what I brought home in a typical week. I didn’t have much choice.


When I got home I looked up the same drug on the website of an off-shore pharmacy I’d used several times in the past. They’d always been reliable and provided quality prescriptions. The only problem was that it took three to four weeks to receive it, and I simply couldn’t afford to wait. Plus, ordering from them probably was illegal, given the bedmate relationship U.S. drug makers have with U.S. lawmakers.

The price there: $22.20, including shipping. Same drug, from a dependable company that legally obtains it from legitimate sources.

I had paid more than 5 times as much for my medication than I had to. Because I had to.

Maybe I should’ve just gotten a soda instead.


It’s no secret that the U.S. spends far more than any other developed country on health care, and yet our health outcomes are generally worse than most of these countries.

The fact that this doesn’t cause Americans apoplexy continues to amaze me. Worse, Republicans in Congress not only aren’t flinching about U.S. health care‘s failures, they’re trying to roll back what little reform we’ve managed to pass.

Why? It’s obvious. Most Republicans in Congress are owned by the companies and people getting rich off our existing, dysfunctional system.

The reasons that U.S. health care fails so miserably is complex. Capitalism really can do many things very well, but with health care, the stars line up to produce the worst results possible. Health care is an industry with a perfect storm of market failures. Way too much gets spent on the wrong things, and far too little on the right ones. Health care is the poster child for an industry that could be vastly improved with the right kind of government involvement.

The big pharmaceutical companies are a textbook example of what’s wrong with the system. These companies develop many wonderful medications that can – and do – improve the lives of millions. The problem is, there’s a lot more money in keeping people sick but alive than there is in curing them. Chronically-ill consumers who require continuous treatment mean a long-term, steady stream of profits. A cure is just a one-shot deal.


Look at the Big Six pharmaceutical companies – Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck, Abbott, Bristo-Myers Squib, and Eli Lilly. Between them, they raked in more than $2 trillion in revenues in the last ten years. That’s “trillion” with a “tr”, not “billion” with a “b”. What’s more, they netted – after tax – nearly $400 billion in profits in that time. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a 17.7% profit margin.

Why do drug makers net almost 4 times what other Fortune 500 companies do? Are they just that pillsmuch better?

Far from it. The main reason is that we as a society grant them legal monopolies (called “patents”) on the drugs they develop.

Patent systems are intended to ensure that people who spend time and money developing new products can recoup their investments and earn enough profit to reward their innovation. Unfortunately, Big Pharma is abusing patent laws – with at least tacit political approval – in order to milk every penny they can out of anyone silly enough to require their drugs for their lives and well-being.

There’s a movie called Ultraviolet where an evil drug company tries to infect everyone with a deadly disease, just so they can sell them the drug that treats it. Big Pharma doesn’t have to infect everyone. It just has to convince us with massive marketing campaigns that we have diseases that only their drugs can treat.


Last year, J&J’s total sales were $67 billion, with a net income of almost $11 billion – a tidy 16% profit margin. But J&J’s total R&D spending was less than $8 billion. They spend $20 billion on sales, marketing, and admin.

It’s a similar story with Pfizer. Eight billion spent on R&D, with more than twice that spent on sales and admin. And almost $15 billion in net income.

Why are we paying five times as much as we should for our prescriptions again?

You can’t really blame companies for making “too much profit”, at least as long as they’re doing that legally and ethically. Setting aside the “legal” and “ethical” parts, the blame rests on us – and our political leaders – for allowing these companies to make such stratospheric margins year after year after year.

Over the past ten years, Wal-Mart had total sales of $3.5 trillion – 68% more than the Big Six combined. But Wal-Mart only netted $122 billion in profits off that, compared with Big Pharma’s $371 billion.

Sure, completely different industry and business model. And yet. What if Big Pharma’s profit margin were just half-way between its 17.7% and Wal-Mart’s 3.5%? What would that mean to us?

Even without decreasing the Drug Lords’ R&D spending a dime, you could take that 7.1% out of their massive advertising spending. Pfizer spends hundreds of millions of dollars on direct-to-consumer advertising for each of its blockbuster drugs. Are those annoying, misleading TV commercials really doing anything to improve the health of Americans?

If Big Pharma’s profit margins had been 10.6% instead of 17.7%, it would’ve saved consumers $150 billion over the last ten years.

That would buy a lot of cherry sodas.


Obviously, unregulated “free” markets aren’t doing a very good job of providing Americans with good health care outcomes at reasonable costs. In fact, they’re doing the opposite:  Ensuring that as many Americans as possible have as many ailments as possible so that drug companies can sell them as many drugs as possible at the highest prices possible.

The profit motive isn’t working here.

So what to do about all this?

First, ban advertising of prescription drugs. Any “information benefits” are far outweighed by the cost and negative side-effects. No one hears the litanies of problems the drugs cause, only the “Ask your doctor about Prozium(tm) today!”

Second, ban any and all drug company reimbursements to physicians. No more junkets for doctors to “present papers” at pharm-sponsored “conferences” at Hawaii resorts. No more “honoraria” for physician “cooperation” in “research programs”. No more drug sales reps wining and dining every Tom, Dick, and doctor.

Finally, regulate the hell out of Big Pharma. Yes, we already do that, but not enough, and not the right way. Eliminate patent abuse and “pay for delay” schemes. Federally subsidize research into cures, not just treatments. Provide incentives for preventing disease, rather than closing the barn door after the virus has escaped. Enact laws that force drug companies to do what’s best for patients, not stockholders, and then enforce those laws vigorously.

Longer-term, single payer’s the only real answer, of course. If a Medicare-esque government agency were the only buyer of pharmaceutical products, it could dictate the prices we have to pay for the chemicals we need to live. Those prices can provide sufficient margins to fund necessary research and development, but limit the extra money thrown into drug executive bonuses and lobbying efforts to promote counter-productive profit-enhancing laws.

It’s time we stop Big Pharma from taking us to the cleaners every time we go to the drugstore.

It’s the only way we’re going to get what we need.