Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 2, 2003
World has 2-tier health care
Canadian media have been alive this spring with coverage of the threats posed by the Toronto SARS outbreak, the West Nile virus and, most recently, by a case of Mad Cow disease found in the Peace River Country. The coverage of these outbreaks demonstrates the media's power as a disseminator of information, a source of education and a creator, even if unwillingly, of public over-reaction.
The public has a right to be wary of the spread of these diseases. In Britain, 129 people died, hundreds of thousands of cattle slaughtered and the export market for British beef destroyed since the first outbreak of Mad Cow disease in 1996. Several countries immediately slapped a ban on the import of Canadian beef after news broke of the Alberta cow.
Toronto, despite successful efforts to contain the spread of SARS, was briefly subjected to a World Health Organization travel advisory. And Western Canadians are already fretting about the West Nile virus, although there has yet to be a single case reported in this part of the country.
We might well do better to put our energies into controlling serious human killers like heart disease, cancer, child poverty and traffic accidents where our efforts would more likely prevent disease and death.
One cannot blame the media for reporting on genuine public health concerns, but the public would be better served by a sense of perspective. Tourists travelling to Toronto are more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident than by SARS. Canadians are more likely to die as a result of poor lifestyle choices than from the West Nile virus.
This takes on even greater significance if viewed in global terms. Canadians have a life expectancy nearing 80 years and that life expectancy is increasing. Not so in large parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, which is being ravaged by unchecked AIDS and malaria.
Three million people a year die from malaria-related diseases and the number is growing. Millions more suffer life-long effects of the disease on cognitive development and educational achievement. Yet malaria is a low public health priority.
In the last 25 years, only four of the nearly 1,400 new drugs developed worldwide were designed to fight malaria. International funding for malaria research is US$150 million a year compared with the $2.5 billion that is needed annually. Yet this disease - and the need to fight it - rarely makes the news.
AIDS is in the news far less than it used to be - even though it is now killing three million people a year and has reduced life expectancy from 64 to 47 years in a dozen African countries. But the development of expensive antiretroviral drugs has cut the death rate from AIDS in the U.S. by 40 per cent over the last decade.
"Treatment for HIV depends not on medical need but on where you live and how much you can afford to pay," Wayne Ellwood writes in the June 2002 New Internationalist.
Western nations have shown that ominous public health threats can be brought under control if there is a concerted effort to do so.
The eradication of smallpox shows that this can even be done globally if there is a political will to do so.
The huge number of deaths in poorer nations from AIDS and malaria shows that globally there is one health care system for the rich and another for the poor.
The media can play an important role in creating the will to fight these diseases. But currently the media are more enamoured with strange new diseases on the home front than with more deadly ones in other parts of the globe.
June 1, the feast of the Ascension, is World Communications Day. This year, Pope John Paul used the day to remind journalists of their duty to build peace. In his annual message, he wrote that ways must be found to ensure weaker sectors of society "are not excluded from having an effective and responsible role in deciding media content and determining the structures and policies of social communications."
That is a message that, if heeded, could mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.
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