Saturday, January 30, 2010

Let Them Drink Sewage, As Long As They Buy Our Drugs

There's a suburb, a slum area, not far South of the town of Nakuru and it always smells bad. Well, perhaps all slums smell bad, but some smell worse than others. As you walk through the main street of Kaptembwa, there are deep trenches at the side of the road, apparently having something to do with the 'sewage system!. But all around, there is stagnant water and raw sewage. When there is a lot of rain, this effluent flows through the streets and even into people's houses. It also mixes with the water supply, such as it is.

I don't know how long Kaptembwa has been like this. People who have been there a long time say there has never been any proper sewage disposal. Now, children play in foul smelling puddles, with terrible consequences for their health. Adults also have to walk through the mess and put up with the smell, the dirt and even the diseases.

Places like Kaptembwa are ideal breeding grounds for water borne diseases. You could vaccinate every child against something like rotavirus and you would still have lots of them sickening and dying of water borne diseases. Both the children and the adults living in such areas need adequate sanitation and reliable supplies of clean water. No amount of vaccine will get rid of the health hazards caused by such conditions.

But also, people are entitled to some level of dignity. They should not have to live in dreadful and threatening conditions. Those who claim to be concerned about their health should consider these conditions first, not the headline grabbing but ultimately weak solution of vaccines or drugs. People shouldn't have to drink water that smells of sewage.

But for some reason, rotavirus vaccine has been much reported recently. Perhaps it's because the Gates Foundation has mentioned the development of the vaccine as one of their primary goals, perhaps it's because the pharmaceutical companies who are behind this lucrative prospect are good at issuing press releases. Journalists are certainly good at citing press releases, regardless of the levels of sales puff they may contain.

Among the three articles I came across today about Gates, Glaxo Smith Kline (and others) and their rotavirus vaccines, all say very little about water and sanitation. They ooze on about how brilliant all this medical technology is but they don't mention, or are not quoted as mentioning, that vaccines will be useless without high levels of spending on water and sanitation infrastructure. It could be wondered if all these groupies care, one way or the other, about how people are forced to live.

One of these articles cites an academic as saying that vaccines "represent the best hope for preventing the severe consequences of rotavirus infection". There is probably a sense in which this 'expert' is right but failing to mention water and sanitation renders the statement hot air. Vague mention is made of water and sanitation in the other articles but the focus is on the vaccine, as if children who are suffering from poor nutrition, multiple vitamin deficiencies and various parasites are going to be magically made healthy by a vaccination for one of the many water borne conditions that are endemic in developing countries.

One of the articles even mentions some the problems of rolling out large scale vaccinations, and the rotavirus vaccine in particular, in countries that have poor health systems and inadequate infrastructure. This article even mentions the high cost of vaccination programmes. Why is it that the Gates Foundation and other institutions don't seem to mind high costs when the main beneficiaries are pharmaceutical companies and other rich establishments?

All the articles list figures for how many lives could be saved by a rotavirus vaccine and the usual sort of stuff. But they don't list the figures for how many lives could be saved by spending money on a cheaper but far more urgent way of reducing deaths from water and sanitation related causes. I can't think why.



Monty said...

Hi, it is a very good way of marketing. I agree with your effort, it’s a nice blog. Really liked it!!!!!!

Simon said...

Hi Monty
Thank you for the encouragement.