2000s >> 2000 >> no-1155-november-2000

Sickness and the system

Who are drugs and medicines produced for and why are they produced? The rational answer (in a rational scheme of things) would be that they are to prevent or cure illness and promote well-being. However, we live under capitalism and, as we know, this means things don’t work that way. A striking example of the priorities of drug production in the capitalist system was given the Channel 4 programme Unreported World on 22 September.

This programme was about the rising incidence of sleeping sickness, a lethal disease carried by the Tsetse fly, in Sudan. After being almost eradicated during the 1960s this horrible disease is back with a vengeance. The situation is grim and you might be forgiven for thinking this might be because there is no effective treatment. In fact there is. it is known as DFMO. However, it is not an option as it is not being manufactured at an affordable price. In short, no pharmaceutical company is actually producing an existing treatment for sleeping sickness as there would be no profit in doing so. While it is needed desperately this medicine is thus withheld and for the lack of DFMO medical workers are forced to treat people using arsenic, of all things.

Some interesting facts came out during the report. Only one in every hundred drugs is developed for what are known as tropical diseases (diseases, that is, which occur in areas of the world where the majority of humanity lives). Of those that are, apparently many are by-products of different research. As there is seen to be no profit in producing drugs for people and health services who have little or nothing to buy them with the research is just not done. it is known for instance that really effective protection against malaria is a scientific possibility, but that it won’t see the light of day because the research wouldn’t be profitable for drug companies. The breakthroughs which could be achieved if scientific knowledge was not enslaved by the profit system don’t take much imagining.

The sick twist in the tale of sleeping sickness in Sudan was that the only hope of DFMO becoming an affordable treatment for those who need it there is the drug’s other known property—it slows facial hair growth. It is possible that DFMO may be marketed by Gillette as a cosmetic product and that this might lead to the price dropping enough for it to be affordable for the treatment of sleeping sickness. After the heart-breaking sight of a little child in terrible distress being given a spinal tap to see if the disease had entered her brain the truly disgusting nature of the upside-down priorities of capitalism could hardly be clearer. The answer to the earlier question is of course that drugs and medicines are produced with a view to yielding a profit. If people’s needs don’t fit in with this, then so much the worse for us.

During a chat I was having recently my mum, a professional nurse, commented that if people weren’t allowed medicines then what was the bloody point of making them. We were talking about a similar no profit—no treatment situation here in this country: namely working-class people with Multiple Sclerosis being denied access to the drug Interferon due to it being “too expensive”. The same goes for everything else; food, housing, clothes, electrical goods—if people can’t have them then what is the point of producing them? To sell or withhold them in the pursuit of profit as the boss class decides. All that wealth, produce and technology utterly wasted when it could be used for the benefit of us all.

The real question is not about whether we can afford medicine. It is about whether we can afford the profit system and the capitalist class. Whether we live in Sudan or in England, the answer is no. The sooner we get on and dump them the better.


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