Saturday, April 28, 2012

American lives are quite cheap

More on Vioxx and the value of human life (Cockburn; my emphasis in red):
"Much of the argument, I remember, revolved around the demographic concept of “greater than expected death.” The available census figures in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were not particularly sturdy, in presumed contrast to the reorts these days of the US Bureau of the Census, So I remain completely astounded by the fact that half a million more Americans than usual on current demographic trends can die and there’s no public commotion or curiosity.

I’m referring to the story by Ron Unz we ran last week, comparing drug scandals, Melamine in China and Vioxx the United States.

To remind readers:

In September 2004, Merck, one of America’s largest pharmaceutical companies, issued a sudden recall of Vioxx, its anti-pain medication widely used to treat arthritis-related ailments.

There was a fair amount of news coverage after the recall, but pretty slim considering the alleged 55,000 death toll. A big class-action lawsuit dragged its way through the courts for years, eventually being settled for $4.85 billion in 2007.

Senior FDA officials apologised for their lack of effective oversight and promised to do better in the future. The Vioxx scandal began to sink into the vast marsh of semi-forgotten international pharmaceutical scandals.

The year after Vioxx was pulled from the market, the New York Times and other media outlets ran minor news items, usually down column, noting that American death rates had undergone a striking and completely unexpected decline.

Typical was the headline on a short article that ran in the 19 April 2005 edition of USA Today: ‘USA Records Largest Drop in Annual Deaths in at Least 60 Years.’ During that one year, American deaths fell by 50,000 despite the growth in both the size and the age of the nation’s population. Government health experts were quoted as being greatly “surprised” and “scratching [their] heads” over this strange anomaly, which was led by a sharp drop in fatal heart attacks.

For his Melamine/Vioxx comparison, Unz went back to those 2005 stories. Quick scrutiny of the most recent 15 years worth of national mortality data provided on the US Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offered Unz some useful clues.

“We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn,” says Unz. “Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in the national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population.

“The FDA studies had proven that use of Vioxx led to deaths from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, and these were exactly the factors driving the changes in national mortality rates.”

“Patterns of cause and effect cannot easily be proven,” Unz continues. “But if we hypothesise a direct connection between the recall of a class of very popular drugs proven to cause fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses with an immediate drop in the national rate of fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses, then the statistical implications are quite serious.”

Unz makes the point that the users of Vioxx were almost all elderly, and it was not possible to determine whether a particular victim’s heart attack had been caused by Vioxx or other factors. But he concludes: “Perhaps 500,000 or more premature American deaths may have resulted from Vioxx [my italics], a figure substantially larger than the 3,468 deaths of named individuals acknowledged by Merck during the settlement of its lawsuit. And almost no one among our political or media elites seems to know or care about this possibility.”

I remarked to Unz that it seemed truly incredible that a greater than expected death rate of this dimension should scarcely have caused a ripple.

“I’m just as astonished,” he said. “One might conjecture that the mainstream media and the government officials were all bribed or intimidated by Merck’s lawyers, lobbyists, and advertising budget into averting their eyes or holding their tongues. But from 2004 onwards, huge numbers of America’s toughest trial lawyers were suing Merck for billions based on Vioxx casualties – didn’t they notice the dramatic drop in the national death rate? “

“The inescapable conclusion is that in today’s world and in the opinion of our own media, American lives are quite cheap, unlike those in China.”

“Besides,” says Unz laughing, “it shows the stupidity of our political leaders that they didn’t seize upon this great opportunity. They should have just renamed Vioxx the ‘Save Social Security Drug,’ and distributed it free in very large doses to everyone, starting on their 65th birthday. Maybe they should have even made it mandatory, three times per day. At sufficiently large levels of national consumption, Vioxx could have almost singlehandedly eliminated all our serious budget deficit problems. ‘Vioxx—The Miracle Anti-Deficit Drug.’”"
I am reminded of the large number of Americans - mostly minorities, but all poor - who live in the pollution belts in places like Texas and Louisiana. The most toxic industries are concentrated together, along with the underclasses who have to bear the health risks, and nobody notices.

We're starting to see the phenomenon that formerly third-world countries are taking care of big public health risks better than formerly first-world countries.  Even if the Chinese make mistakes, there are people in the government who care.  The same can't be said of the governments of the United States and other formerly first-world countries, who would completely side with the corporate killers and corporate profits.
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