A Spoonful of Sugar

polio_sugar_cube

I believe in capitalism, but I think there are times when it should be set aside for the greater good. Our health is one of those instances. The current US healthcare system is an example of capitalism run amok.

I believe that all Americans have a right to affordable healthcare and that prescription meds should be in the public domain. Healthcare should be inexpensive and available, rather than being driven by the profit motive. Pharmaceutical companies and health insurers must be controlled. Don’t believe me? Take a look at a random annual report and you’ll see that their earnings are enormous.

More importantly, these profits are made by over charging the consumer and under paying the provider. Insurance premiums are through the roof and patients often have to fight just to receive the level of care that they are entitled to. Healthcare providers can struggle to provide for their patients as they try to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy created by the insurance companies.

Here’s a true story: back in the fifties the second scariest thing that Americans faced was a disease called polio. (The number one fear was the atomic bomb.) Affecting mostly young people, poliomyelitis is a viral disease that causes muscle weakness and paralysis. Back then, polio cases spiked every summer and there was no cure. In 1952, the worst year on record, over 58,000 people contracted the disease, resulting in 3,145 deaths. More than 21,000 were affected by paralysis. I remember because several kids in my school suffered from the effects of polio.

In the early fifties, Dr. Jonas Salk created a vaccine that, although it didn’t cure polio, it helped to prevent the debilitating paralysis. Not long after, Dr. Albert Sabin at the University of Cincinnati developed a vaccine that was ingested via a sugar cube. Over a million people worldwide were involved in the clinical trials, mostly in Russia, and not a single case of polio was found.

Which was good news for me. In 1960, 180,000 Cincinnati school children were part of another of Dr. Sabin’s clinical trials and I was one of them. Over the course of three months, we were each given three doses of the vaccine in the form of a simple sugar cube. Not one case of polio occurred during the Cincinnati trials. Finally, the scourge of polio was eradicated. Back then, a spoonful of sugar really did help the medicine go down.

Rather than getting rich off his work, Dr. Sabin donated his polio vaccine to the US Public Health Service, who distributed it across the country. He also gave the vaccine away worldwide and refused to sell it to a pharmaceutical company (they were for-profit operations even then). He made no money other than his professor’s salary and for his work at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Do you think that would happen today? Just ask “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli.

I’ve been thinking about that era a lot lately, and wondering if we can ever get back to focusing on what is in the best interest of the public health. The US is the richest and most powerful country in the world, we should be able to provide adequate healthcare for all of our citizens. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we can do whatever we put our minds to. After all, we cured polio, didn’t we? All it took was a spoonful of sugar…

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