Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

W.H.O. and the Medical Industry

At EP-ology, Carl Phillips has a new post on the World Health Organization’s failure to care about suffering.   It’s worth reading — especially if you (still) believe that the WHO’s main aim is promoting health.

Phillips’s focus in that post is on a new WHO Atlas on headaches

and the problem that headaches cause people to stay home from work, or work less productively.   The agency estimates that Europe-wide, the lost productivity from migraines alone is worth 155 billion euros each year.  It isn’t that you feel crummy when your head hurts, and that chronic headache makes your life miserable.  It’s that you might not perform your expected per-capita service to the expansion of wealth.

Here’s how EP-ology assesses the agency:

The WHO is not the humanitarian organization that many people might think it is.  It is a special-interest medical-industry-oriented organization with an emphasis on the interests of governments, not people.  Its emphasis on productivity in looking at headaches … ignores people’s welfare…

Now, I can’t agree with Phillips’s analysis that the WHO’s ethical system is either “communist” or “fascist.”  For self-described public health agencies like the WHO to be concerned primarily with productivity and the generation of wealth — and only secondarily, if at all, with suffering — has been a hallmark of capitalism since the British Parliament passed the world’s first Public Health Act in 1848.

In fact, the laws institutionalizing public health in Britain in the late 1840s were passed by the Whig (liberal, more or less) government of Lord John Russell.  Public health was a legacy of efforts not by the nascent socialist and communist movements, but by radical capitalists — who sought to secure a moderately hale labor force to serve British industry with little cost to the factory owners.  And aimed to blame individuals for their own misery.

But it’s impossible to disagree with the main point of Phillips’s post:  WHO’s aim is to serve industry.

As further evidence, consider this follow-up note on Tamiflu by Helen Epstein, published in the May 26th issue of NY Review of Books (I discussed Epstein’s main article in a post last month).  It seems more and more apparent that potential dangers of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) in children were ignored.  Epstein reports that

the risks of delirium and unconscious episodes were indeed significantly elevated in children who took Tamiflu, especially if they took the drug during the first day or so after influenza symptoms appeared….  If these results are confirmed, they are especially worrying, since the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control both recommend that Tamiflu be taken as soon as possible after symptoms appear.

I was not the only one unaware of this important study; neither, apparently, were the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Centers for Disease Control. When I contacted these agencies in January and February 2011, their spokespeople assured me that there was no evidence that Tamiflu causes neuropsychiatric side effects in children. [emphasis added]

In the rush to move taxpayer monies into the hands of wealthy private corporations, the WHO (with CDC and other agencies) proclaimed a flu emergency in 2009.  And ignored evidence on possible dangers of the products they were touting as part of the “preparedness” response.

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This entry was posted on Monday, May 9th, 2011 at 6:08 pm and is filed under Disease, flu, Health Professions, public health, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “W.H.O. and the Medical Industry”

Thanks for the shout-out, and especially for the additional information re this theme I am pursuing. I thought I would try to clarify my characterization that you disagree with — not to be argumentative, but to try to better nail down what my point to improve it in the future.

You note that in the UK it was the radical capitalists who promoted public health. This picks up on my theme but points out that I am using too sweeping a word — “fascism” just has too many aspects in too many different definitions to be useful for much of anything. So I will abandon it. I was trying to use it as a shorthand for an anti-liberal, non-humanitarian, oligarchic, “institutionalistic” (I am looking for a word that is analogous to “nationalistic” but is not limited to the state), system in which the interests of established business and the government are merged (roughly, corporatist). So the English capitalists were using the state to serve the interests of business and the oligarchs without really worrying about the people as people. I take your point that 19th century English Whigs (my history is a bit rusty here) were not anti-liberal, nor was their view traditionalist, nationalist, or militaristic, traits that are included in many definitions of fascism. Liberal capitalism is very different from fascism, but still can treat people as if they were just machinery, as was the case in the industrial revolution. I hope my point is clear about the traits that do seem to match up.

Now I just need a terse description for this instituionalistic political ethic. “Feudalism” has the same problem as “fascism” — it it a pretty good metaphor but a literal interpretation runs into problems. “Oligarchy” is accurate, but does not fully capture the notion of people as mere means of production; “slavery” obviously goes too far the other direction. Suggestions?