Sunday, April 24, 2005

Fundamentally Wrong

Recently, NPR did a series of pieces to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Salk vaccine for polio. I hadn't realized that it had been fifty years, but I should have. I remember when the announcement was made and the tears in my mother's eyes as she read the news article. Polio was the scourge of my childhood. The little girl who lived on the corner had polio and was confined to bed, her legs useless and her breathing forced.

Now, the disease simply doesn't exist in this country and many of the countries in the developed world. Unfortunately, we haven't been so successful in the under developed world, such as Africa. The World Health Organization and other non-governmental organizations have struggled for years to put into place mass vaccination programs to eradicate polio, but they frequently are thwarted for the most astounding of reasons.

One part of the NPR series dealt with the problems in Nigeria. I did some checking and found this story about the source of the problems:

The global campaign to eradicate polio by 2005 is being threatened by the resurgence of the disease in the far north of Nigeria.

Despite this, an immunisation programme has been put on hold because of claims by Muslim clerics that the vaccine is being deliberately contaminated as part of a western plot.

In the predominantly Muslim region where anti-American sentiments often run high, the idea that the polio vaccine is part of a US plot to render women in the developing world infertile quickly took hold.

How whacked is that? At least that was my initial response. That "anti-American sentiments" run high in the Muslim world comes as no surprise. We've earned it. Still, Islamic scholars are not ignorant. They have to know that allowing their children to die from a horrible disease that could be prevented is a stupid price to pay.

That same week, I learned this bit of news.

DEATHS from cervical cancer could jump fourfold to a million a year by 2050, mainly in developing countries. This could be prevented by soon-to-be-approved vaccines against the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer - but there are signs that opposition to the vaccines might lead to many preventable deaths.

The trouble is that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted. So to prevent infection, girls will have to be vaccinated before they become sexually active, which could be a problem in many countries.

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

I've lost several friends to cervical cancer, including one that also had HPV. Like all cancer deaths, it is a horrible way to die. Even if one is able to overcome the cancer, the treatment itself is hellish with longstanding complications (e.g., post chemo pain syndrome). Why would any person who claims to be ethical want to short-circuit a way to prevent cervical cancer? Is it really about the sex?

I think there is more to this conundrum. I think it no accident that in both of these stories, the key is the agenda being put forth by those who would withhold the life-saving vaccine. In both cases, the objections are being expressed by those who are fundamentalist in their approach and their beliefs. In both cases, unstated though the principle may be, there is the demand for complete control over those deemed weaker and less valuable: women and children.

And in both cases, the objectors are fundamentally wrong.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

What Fresh Hell

There are few common values across cultures and civilizations, but taking care of the children seems to be one of them. They, of course, represent the future, the continuation of the culture, and as bearers of the future, they should be protected and given every opportunity to grow and thrive within their community. I don't think this is a particularly nuanced observation, or even a particularly radical concept. Cultures take care of their kids, or at least should.

Shockingly, this is apparently not the case in this country. In New York City, the agency that's supposed to take care of children when their families can't or won't has apparently allowed them to be used in drug trials.

A British documentary apparently tells this appalling story.

A new BBC documentary exposes how the city of New York has been forcing HIV positive children under its supervision to be used as human guinea pigs in tests for experimental AIDS drug trials. All of the children in the program were under the legal guidance of the city's child welfare department, the Administration for Children's Services. Most live in foster care or independent homes run on behalf of the local authorities and almost all the children are believed to be African-American or Latino.

In the documentary, parents or guardians who refused to consent to the trials claim that children were removed by ACS and placed in foster families or children's homes. Then, acting over their objections, ACS authorized the drug trials.

I would have thought that the shameful episode of the Tuskegee "medical study" and the horrific results would have cured us of this kind of "science," but clearly I would have been wrong. It's interesting that just like the African-American men who were used in Tuskegee, this set of clinical participants are apparently all children of color.

Remember, these are children, and they are children who are HIV positive. There are already drugs that would help them stave off the ravages of that disease. Instead, they get to be the lab rats for one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies anxious to see if a new drug, one that will hold a patent for many years, ensuring its expensiveness, will do any good. If it doesn't (and apparently we don't know what kind of follow-up has been done), well, too bad.

Someone said once that a nation should be judged on how it treated the weakest and most defenseless of its citizens. I don't think we will be judged too mercifully in this matter, nor should we.

The Administration for Children's Services in New York City should be ashamed. We all should be.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Clash of Sovereign Nations

In my cynical moments (which have become more frequent of late), I am convinced that this government is not to be trusted, not at all and not in anything large or small. I have been lied to on so many occasions that I know I cannot believe anything coming from either Washington DC or Sacramento. Still, there doesn't seem to be much I can do about the current regime in either city, at least not until the next election.

For that reason, I was very happy to read this story this morning. The Navajo did one of the canniest things I've seen in years.

Mining companies began blasting holes on the reservation, which covers 27,000 square miles, in the 1940s and continued for nearly 40 years until decreased demand closed the operations.

By then, the Navajos were left with radiation sickness, contaminated tailings and abandoned mines. To avoid repeating the past, Navajo leaders and grassroots organizations have been working for years to keep mining from starting again.

Some uranium mining companies are hot to go back onto the Navajo reservation (which contains a whole lot of the ore) and so they have been pushing Congress to pass a bill which will allow them to re-open operations. Their argument is that there is new technology for in situ processing which is much safer.

The Navajo aren't buying that. They worry that the new technology won't protect the aquafer and their nightmares will start all over again. So, they did what any reasonable sovereign nation does: it passed a law forbidding uranium mining on the reservation.

I (and the Navajos) have no doubt that there will soon be a law suit and that it will have to be fought all the way up to the US Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if the feds in any of the branches will acknowledge the sovereignty of the Navajos, but I have a hunch that they just might.

Either way, way to go!

It's The Economy, Stupid

The last time a Republican President termed out, a brash, young, Southern pol engineered a successful campaign based on the economy. Clinton pointed to twelve years of Republican budgetary mismanagement and beat the pants off the current President's father.

Clinton, admittedly under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans (who really didn't believe he'd actually take up the dare and beat them over the head with it), managed to eventually balance the budget and bring in a surplus for the first time in most folks' memory. His success in that area, coupled with a pretty healthy economy with low unemployment made the 90's look like a return to the Garden of Eden.

Unfortunately, Bill couldn't keep his zipper up, and old Stone Face, the Democratic nominee saddled with Bill's moral indiscretion, lost to George W. Bush, who promised a return to honor and right behavior.

Now, while I have a whole honking lists of screwups perpetuated by Mr. Bush the Younger, the one that is tearing at my intestines today is the economy. I just filled up the gas tank in my small, yet sturdy Honda Accord. After the usual number of dings, I checked the pump face: "$31.00," it howled at me. The price for regular at Mr. Cho's Mobil in Pasadena is $2.69.9.

Now while the price of fuel for my little putt-putt is an annoyance, I get good enough mileage that, even with the driving I do for my job, I rarely fill up more than once a week. That is just part of the problem. I assume the price of diesel has also risen. That means the big trucks that deliver the stock to the near-by Vons supermarket also are paying more for fuel, which means I will be paying more for groceries for me and the animals. The price of oil affects all segments of the economy, not just fuel for our choice of personal transportation.

The economy itself doesn't look too attractive even without considering the cost of oil. In fact, while inflation doesn't seem to be rising all that alarmingly, wages are still behind what inflation there is. Balance of trade figures seem even more lopsided than usual. The dollar, once equal in value to the Euro (by design), now will only get 0.76 of a Euro.

Apparently I'm not the only citizen concerned about all of this. A recent Washington Post column indicates a great portion of the nation is equally upset by the current trend.

Inflation and interest rates are rising, stock values have plunged, a tank of gas induces sticker shock, and for nearly a year, wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living.

Yet in Washington, the political class has been consumed with the death of a brain-damaged woman in Florida, the ethics of the House majority leader, and the fate of the Senate filibuster. The disconnect between pocketbook concerns of ordinary Americans and the preoccupations of their politicians has helped send President Bush's approval ratings on the economy down, while breeding discontent with Congress.

I predict that the first party that remembers Bill Clinton's campaign mantra will win big in 2006. The trick, of course, is to get something in the works NOW while there's still a chance to keep the country from tanking.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Sometimes It's Hard

Being a progressive and a Christian is difficult. The liberal view of Christians is distorted by the fundamentalists who have hijacked the religion of peace and love and turned it into the cult of hatred, bigotry, and power seeking. I suppose it's as much my fault, and those like me who are liberal believers, as anyone else's because we let the cult of death-and-damnation-to-those-who-would-disagree take over the public podium. We should have stood up and called bullshit on those folks right from the start, but, like the Democrats in Congress and the state legislatures, we sat politely on our hands and let them steal our faith and good name with ease. As a result, whenever liberals get together to talk, the insults run thick with condemnation of the Christians and the mess they're making.

Actually, I understand the ire: the fundamentalists, not content with stealing our religion, are now attempting to steal our government (all branches, all levels) as well. There used to be a time that politics and religion were never used as discussion topics in polite conversation. That rule has certainly gone by the boards. Not only are both prime topics of open discussion, they are always linked. The goal of the "Christian" Right is to tear down that wall separating church and state and to completely gut the Constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion.

Well, folks, if you insist on inserting your cult into the public arena, at least get it right. At Father Jake, an Episcopalian priest, got it right:

"Since the pollsters came out with their claim that the election was decided on 'moral values,' now every politician, Republican and Democrat, is looking for opportunities to talk about God. I'm not sure that more God talk is going to convince anyone anymore that the speaker deserves their vote. It won't convince me.

"What will convince me are actions. Specifically, actions that reveal a desire to offer a hand up to the poor and a willingness to explore the systemic causes of poverty. What will convince me to support a candidate are actions that give evidence of a consistent life ethic that includes not just discussion of abortion and euthanasia, but also of the thousands of innocent Iraqis who have died due to the American invasion and those on death row who will be murdered in the name of the state. What I'm looking for are politicians who express their belief in the dignity of every human being by standing up for those who would be excluded because they are different in some way from the majority. I want a leader who recognizes our responsibility to be good stewards of all of creation, if for no other reason than to make sure that we don't leave our children's children a toxic wasteland."

That's what we Christians ought to be preaching, and teaching, and shouting to the nation. And what we should be demanding from our reborn pols.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Sometimes They Get It Right

David Broder is not my favorite pundit, not by a long shot. However, occasionally he not only writes something that makes sense, he does it with some grace rather than his usual superior glibness.

His column on April 6, 2005 found here is one of those good hits.

After meeting with Dean Baker and David Rosnick, Mr. Broder got a lesson on the real crisis facing America:

"Between 1980 and 2004, the growth in health care costs exceeded that of per capita gross domestic product by 12.6 percent. In just the next 10 years, that gap is projected to grow an additional 7.2 percent.

"By either the CBO or the Social Security trustees' estimates, the hit to the economy from runaway health care costs is far greater than the potential damage of a Social Security tax increase. The ratios range from four times as great to 18 times as great, depending on which estimates one chooses. "

And yet, all of our attention is focussed on Social Security, not on health care costs that makes Social Security look like penny ante stuff. Medicare is in worse trouble than Social Security, and it's only been made worse by the prescription 'benefit.' Medicaid threatens to bankrupt states.

Anyone without health insurance knows it's almost impossible to even get in the door of a doctor's office, leaving the hospital emergency room the only option. Even with health insurance, complete financial disaster is just one heart attack or stroke, one automobile accident, or one cancer diagnosis away. Many more bankruptcies were filed by decent people wiped out by medical bills than by deadbeats, and now even bankruptcy relief looks to be impossible for the average citizen.

Americans pay far more health care costs than any other industrialized nation. We deserve better, and our Congress should start dealing with the problem. Broder got it right this time.

A Sick Puppy

To start the day with this story was to start the day in the worst possible way.

It's clear that Mr. Mickel is one sick puppy, but then I think people who kill others in cold blood are sick and need to be put someplace where they won't repeat their sick acts. Prisons and/or a mental institutions will keep them and society safe. Killing them in cold blood under state sanction is equally as sick in my view, so I am opposed to the death penalty, even in cases as horrendous as this one.

Still, there's something else about this story that caused the hair on the back of my neck to rise: his justification for the murder of the police officer. He did it because he was a "patriot," because America is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to civil rights and the public has to notice. Like the Unabomber, Mr. Mickel has an agenda that on its surface appears to be part of the wackiest part of the far left. And that does more than embarrass an unashamed progressive like me; it scares the hell out of me.

This country is deeply divided, and the chasm separating the two sides has grown to the point where civil discourse is nigh unto impossible. But murder to make a point? Have we somehow gotten to that place where speech is easily replaced by guns?

Florida's new law allowing private citizens to carry and use guns if they are threatened on the street (rather than running away) seems to be pointing us in that direction. If that is the case, then why bother with elections, or governments, or the rule of law. He with the biggest semi-automatic and the best aim will rule.

That is not the country I want to live in, and I'm reasonably certain that it is not the country my more conservative friends want either.

Hopefully Mr. Mickel is simply a single instance of mental illness rather than a marker for when the end began. Hopefully.