Politics is Making People Sick, Literally

Politics is Making People Sick, Literally

Alexis ChapmanWednesday,17 August 2016

With no reported polio cases since July of 2014, Nigeria was supposed to be celebrating 2 years free of the disease. Instead, a new large-scale vaccination campaign was launched after two children were diagnosed with polio last week. This virus is genetically linked to a strain that was seen in 2011, which means it has existed undetected in Nigeria for five years.

It’s not coincidental that the new cases appeared in the state of Borno, much of which is under the control of the terrorist group Boko Haram. In addition to kidnappings, assassinations, supporting ISIS, and bombings, Boko Haram has also refused to allow medical professionals to vaccinate children in their territory or monitor the potential spread of polio there. It’s also no coincidence that the other two countries where polio is still known to exist are Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have both endured more than their fair share of political unrest. Globally, polio eradication efforts have largely been a success story and are seen as a triumph of cooperation, science, and the tireless efforts of medical professionals. But vaccination campaigns only work if people get the vaccines. The polio eradication effort will never get finished as long as politics, instability, and terrorism in areas where polio still exists prevent children from having access to the vaccine.

For a disease like malaria, which doesn’t currently have an available vaccine, eradication efforts can be even more easily derailed. Venezuela had been officially malaria free since 1961, until now. Venezuela’s economy is dependent almost exclusively on oil and when oil prices dropped precipitously earlier this year, their economy, which had already been in a downturn, crashed hard. The government has been unable to afford to import necessities like food and has become increasingly fractured and unable to function.

As the political and economic crisis has gone on, currency devaluation, food shortages, crime increases, and job losses have all gotten worse. In order to earn money many Venezuelans have begun working in illegal gold mines near the jungles where malaria still exits. A lot of the people who now work in the mines still live in cities and when they return home they take the malaria with them. In just a few short months malaria has once again become a major health problem in Venezuela and the same crisis that led to its resurgence has also left the country with shortages of medicine. Because many of the infected are not getting treatment the outbreak is probably far from over.

Of course preventable diseases are not confined to countries that are chronically or newly politically unstable. The U.S. has a very stable political system but congressional failure to take decisive preemptive action has enabled the continued spread of the Zika virus here. While Zika in Brazil seems to have peaked, in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that is home to about 3.5 million U.S. Citizens, the disease is still spreading at an alarming rate. On Monday, August 15, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially declared that Puerto Rico is in a public health emergency due to Zika. The virus has now made the move to mosquito populations in Florida on the U.S. mainland, and this week officials confirmed that a person who contracted the virus in Florida brought it to Texas, which also has a large population of the mosquitoes that can carry and spread the disease.

So far Zika has no vaccine, no preventative medicine, and no cure. The only way to stop the virus is with mosquito eradication efforts and health initiatives instructing citizens how to get rid of mosquitoes, how to avoid getting bitten, and how to avoid spreading the disease through sexual activity. But in order for these tactics to work there has to be a massive effort to educate the public and get them to follow the protocols. So far, U.S. politicians haven’t mandated or provided funding for those actions on a large scale and so the virus continues to spread.

Of course all of these viruses are complicated as are the various health, environmental, social, economic, and political factors that contribute to their spread. But for all three diseases we have the information and the tools we need to get rid of them for good. There is no real reason that future generations should have to deal with them. It’s taken a tremendous amount of scientific study and medical research to understand what these viruses are and how they’re spread, but now that we know as much as we do, the steps needed to stop them are relatively simple. The catch is that eradication efforts have to be undertaken consistently by very large groups of people. But in order for that to happen we need political systems that are stable and functional and leaders that are well informed, and willing and able to take the necessary action to stop these diseases. Apparently for now that is too much to ask for in Nigeria, Venezuela, and the U.S.

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Image Credit: John Tann on Flickr

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