The hubbub around the swine flu is entirely appropriate: It’s a fast moving, unknown virus that is proving to be deadly when untreated. That said, it also reinforces a frustrating truth: A whole lot of other public health problems persist only because we don’t care enough to stop them.
So far, the swine flu has crippled Mexico, is spreading exponentially in the U.S. and is popping in all corners of the world. The scary part is what we don’t yet know: How many are already infected? In how many places? And how fast will it mutate? Depending on the answers, things could already be much more dire than we know, particularly in poor countries. It’s bad stuff.
But while we ramp up to deal with this unknown threat, I can’t help but think about all the threats we have long known about and allowed to linger. A quick and dirty list:
• AIDS (of course): 33 million infected globally, with 2.7 million more getting infected and 2 million dying every year.
• Malaria: 1 to 3 million killed every year, 90 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
• Tuberculosis: 1.7 million killed in 2006, 90 percent of them in developing countries.
• Regular old flu: 36,000 killed in the U.S. and anywhere from 250,000 to half a million globally every year. (To be fair, the vast majority of these deaths are in elderly people who were already sick from something else.)
A global health researcher could fill your day talking about other preventable, treatable illnesses that kill poor people all over the globe, every day. Not to mention the broader concerns, like healthy environments and adequate nutrition, or the needless deaths that come from poor prenatal care, for instance.
The point isn’t that we should be blasé about the swine flu. News that the Obama administration wants a fast-tracked vaccine is welcome. And we must ensure that when it’s developed—with significant public investment, no doubt—it does more than make money for Big Pharma. It must be made accessible to the poor patients around the world who need it most.
But at the same time, it’d be nice to see this same kind of urgency in responding to all of our global health concerns.