Blaming Republicans Again

I know you thought that the current Ebola outbreak was the result of dysfunctional countries with horrendous health care systems. Or maybe you thought it was the fault of organizations like the WHO to respond quickly enough. Or maybe you think it’s no one’s fault and that disease outbreaks are going to happen.

But you’re wrong. The current Ebola outbreak is the fault of …. Republicans:

“Republican Cuts Kill” is the message coming from The Agenda Project, a 501(c)4 organization that is placing ads in various battleground states. According to an email signed by the group’s founder Erica Payne and titled “If you die, blame them,” the group is starting a

a multi-pronged blitzkrieg attack that lays blame for the Ebola crisis exactly where it belongs– at the feet of the Republican lawmakers. Like rabid dogs in a butcher shop, Republicans have indiscriminately shredded everything in their path, including critical programs that could have dealt with the Ebola crisis before it reached our country.

The supposed proximate cause is “deep draconian cuts” in the budgets of the NIH and the CDC which hindered their disease response. Never mind that the US still spends a total of $8 billion on global health. Never mind that the CDC and NIH have nearly $40 billion in funding between them. Never mind that cuts to CDC/NIH and specifically cuts for disease control were included in the budget proposal of Barack Obama who, last time I checked, was not a Republican. Never mind that according to Daily Kos’s own graph, the steep budget cuts in PHEP started in 2006, when the Democrats controlled Congress. Never mind that the Republican increased CDC funding over the President’s budget.

Conservatives, dammit!

This was partially stimulated by the head of the NIH saying that we would have an Ebola vaccine if not for budget cuts. Numerous people have responded by finding silliness in the NIH budget — such as $666,000 grant to find out why people like watching Seinfeld reruns — that they did have money for. I’m a bit loathe to play that game because often projects that sound stupid aren’t or are, at least, massively misrepresented.

But I will take issue with the NIH’s claim that we’d have an Ebola vaccine if it weren’t for budget cuts (a claim they are slowly backing away from). Vaccine research is hard. We’ve been spoiled because most of the vaccines we’re used to — like measles — are cheap, effective and have minimal side effects. Such vaccines have wiped out smallpox and brought polio to the brink of extinction. But not all vaccines are that easy. We’ve been working on an AIDS vaccine for thirty years. Enormous effort has gone into finding a vaccine for malaria — which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year — with no success. Even some of the vaccines we do have are hideously expensive, come with significant side effects or have limited effectiveness. NIH might have an Ebola vaccine if they had more money. They might also have nothing.

I’m a big fan of science funding, obviously. I like NIH to be well-funded. Public health is one of the few things we can all agree government should invest in. And I think basic science funding falls under Adam Smith’s description of something “which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain” but that benefits the public generally. But Ebola is not the reason to fund the NIH. They should be funded because of the outstanding research they do on everything else, especially the chronic common diseases that affect all of us. I especially want them to be working on antibiotic-resistant diseases, which, to my mind, pose the greatest healthcare menace for the 21st century. They should research Ebola as well. With a $30 billion budget, there’s plenty to go around. But Ebola research is only a tiny fraction of what they do. And I’d prefer they not try to pretend otherwise.

As for the CDC, a bit less money on public health issues and a bit more money on infectious disease would be a good idea. And that, my friends, is squarely on the President and the man he appointed to head that agency.

As a general rule, however, I would prefer that we keep Ebola and politics apart. This isn’t an excuse to grind your favorite political axe, be it immigration, budget cuts or single-payer healthcare. This is a time to calmly but decisively react to a potential health crisis. The main effort should be stomp this out in West Africa before it really does rage out of control. Because if this blows up to hundreds of thousands of people, if this spreads to South Africa or India or China, we will have a global epidemic on our hands.

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