Public Health

As I write this, I just listened to another story about people who want to drink raw milk. When I was 11, recovering from an illness, my doctor, the chairman of pediatrics at a New York City hospital, told my parents to put me on raw milk – but specific milk medically supervised to make sure that it didn’t carry the botulism and other diseases that could have killed me quickly.

Let me make one other disclosure. I never met my sister. She died in 1927 at the age of three. I came along many years later. It was only in my generation that parents no longer expected to lose some of their children. So I have a foot and a heart in and an understanding of both worlds.

I remember the annual terror over polio. My parents left New York City on the last day of school every year and took me upstate where they thought I’d be safe; but people got it everywhere. As a small child I dropped coins in the March of Dimes cans when it was totally dedicated to eradicating polio. And I remember the national sigh of relief on the arrival of the Salk vaccine. I can only imagine what it was like for those kids who were totally confined inside their iron lungs. I got the Salk vaccine. When I joined the Peace Corps I got the Sabin vaccine. I got another dose when I left the country for a trip to Africa. Bless all the people who devoted their lives to making me safe.

Every summer as we went upstate, my parents would ask about the water. They grew up before public water meant safe water. They wanted to know if the water was fit to drink. Over the previous century the creation of sanitary drinking water had swept much of the western world from the discovery, in London, of the water borne sources of some of the most dangerous diseases. I’ve lived and worked abroad where that was not true, where one had to boil or chlorinate everything, order only hot things in restaurants, ignore venders of cold drinks – and both me and my wife, a thousand miles apart at the time, found ourselves quite ill from food or water born disease. We survived. Not everyone was so lucky. Do you cook with bottled water? And where do you think that comes from anyway?

My life, and the health of my children, have all been protected thanks to public health systems, not by free choice. People had free choices for millennia and died from their choices. They played Russian roulette in the absence of the modern science coupled with doctors and public servants who worked to create the basis for healthy lives so that parents like me wouldn’t be in constant fear that their children wouldn’t grow up.

So it makes me furious to hear people rebelling against vaccinations, pasteurization, and fully funding our public health systems. This is the imperialism of ignorance trying to force everyone back into the dark ages of disease because it bugs them to have to respect the science and the scientists. And it makes me furious that people think that their health is because of private drug companies who spend far more on lobbying, advertising and skin creams than they do on the medicines that fight disease, who spend far less on crucial research than the government funds, and who refuse to make vaccines because the profit margins are too low.

Perhaps it won’t matter, if this same willful blindness to science and public health continues to block efforts to deal with global warming, which will overrun our defenses with diseases seen now only in the tropics.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 17, 2012.

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