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Re: SC27

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October 19, 2006 09:33PM
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/

Public Health: Slow Motion Disaster

............Though it’s all but unnoticed outside of a small cadre of worried professionals, the disintegration of public health in coming decades promises a disaster in slow motion.............

...............The impending collapse of public health, like most aspects of our current predicament, has an abundance of causes. One is the failure of government at all levels to maintain even the very modest support public health once received. Lacking an influential constituency in the political class, public health departments far more often than not came out the losers in the tax and budget struggles that dominated American state and local politics in the last quarter of the 20th century. Worse, food safety regulations were among the consumer protections gutted by business-friendly politicians, with results that make the headlines tolerably often these days.

A second factor in collapsing public health is the end of the antibiotic age. Starting in the early years of the 20th century, when penicillin revolutionized the treatment of bacterial infections, antibiotics transformed medical practice. Dozens of once-lethal diseases – diphtheria, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, and many others – became treatable conditions. A few prescient researchers cautioned that microbes could evolve resistance to the new “wonder drugs” if the latter were used too indiscriminately, but their warnings went unheard amid the cheerleading of a pharmaceutical industry concerned only with increasing sales and profits, and a medical system that became little more than the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing arm. The result has been an explosion of antibiotic-resistant microbes. The media not long ago announced the emergence of XDR (extreme drug resistant) tuberculosis in Africa and Asia, adding to the list of microbes even the best modern antibiotics won’t treat.

A third and even more worrisome factor is the impact of ecological disruption on patterns of disease. As the number of people on an already overcrowded globe spirals upwards, more and more of the earth’s wild lands come under pressure, and microbes that have filled stable ecological niches since long before our species arrived on the scene end up coming into contact with new hosts and vectors. HIV, the virus that apparently causes AIDS, seems to have gotten into the human population that way; Ebola and a dozen other lethal hemorrhagic fevers certainly did, along with many others. At the same time, global warming driven by our smokestacks and tailpipes has changed distribution patterns of mosquitoes and other disease vectors, with the result that malaria, dengue fever, and other tropical diseases are starting to show up on the edges of today’s temperate zones.

Add the impact of fossil fuel depletion on these three factors and the results are unwelcome in the extreme. In a future of soaring energy costs and crumbling economies, public health is pretty much guaranteed less access to local government budgets than it has now, meaning that even the most basic public health services are likely to go by the boards. The same factors make it unlikely at best that pharmaceutical companies will be able to afford the expensive and resource-intensive process of developing new antibiotics that has kept physicians one step ahead of most of the antibiotic-resistant microbes so far. Finally, ecological disruption will only increase as a world population dependent on petroleum-based agriculture scrambles to survive the end of cheap oil, and the likelihood that many countries will switch to coal means that global warming will likely go into overdrive in the next few decades.

The inevitable result is the return of the health conditions of the 18th and 19th century, when deadly epidemics were routine events, childhood mortality was common, and most people could expect to die from infectious diseases rather than the chronic conditions that fill the “cause of death” slot on most death certificates these days. Factor in soaring rates of alcohol and drug abuse, violence, and malnutrition – all of them inevitable consequences of hard economic contraction – and you have a situation where the number of people on the planet will take a sharp downward turn. Statistics from Russia, where a similar scenario played out in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, suggest that population levels could be halved in less than a century. This doesn’t require massive epidemics or the like; all it takes is a death rate from all causes well in excess of the birth rate, and that’s something we will certainly have as the deindustrial age begins.....................
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