by Jan Baughman
(Swans - October 22, 2007) A tragic press release crossed the news wire recently regarding primary liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in China. HCC is a particularly difficult cancer to treat; imaging of the tumors is expensive; and surgery, chemotherapy, and other targeted therapies have minimal impact on the prognosis, which is typically 3 to 6 months' survival. The epidemiology of the disease varies between Western and non-Western countries, with the most common cause being alcohol abuse in the former and exposure to viral hepatitis in the latter. Half of all cases worldwide occur in China. Yet, what made this story so tragic was not the human toll of HCC in China. The headline read, "China's Liver Cancer Drug Market to Quadruple by 2011."
Decision Resources, one of the world's leading research and advisory firms focusing on pharmaceutical and healthcare issues, forecasts that the Chinese hepatocellular carcinoma [...] market will quadruple between 2006 and 2011. According to the new Emerging Markets report entitled Liver Cancer in China, this growth will be fueled by increasing access to medical care, increased sales of existing therapies and the introduction of novel target agents. (1)
It is time to fully welcome China to the capitalist world, where people are a renewable commodity, and their illness and demise an emerging market opportunity.
It comes as no surprise, then, that President Bush vetoed and the House did not override a proposed expansion of the SCHIP program to provide health insurance coverage for an additional 4 million poor children. The government is not in the "business" of providing health care as the president argues (except when it is, e.g., for the military), and increased poverty rolls represent neither government interest nor an emerging, profitable market for the private sector, despite the increasing middle-class ranks tumbling into the black hole.
The enormous profitability of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, along with the continuing trend of privatization and outsourcing of government functions, does not bode well for the possibility of universal health care any time soon. It is important in this context to pay attention to the language of the political debate and dispute the proposed alternatives that are non-starter solutions presented to address the health care crisis. It is not access to insurance that is in need, it is access to health care. Tax credits for private coverage are not the solution -- they require would-be recipients to a) make enough money to be able to front the bills and b) make enough money to have to pay taxes. Further, being able to afford private health insurance premiums, running in the thousands of dollars per year, does not equate to affording health care, deductibles, co-pays, and the like. It is merely a form of insurance against a catastrophic health problem, and in good capitalist (and regressive) form, the more health problems one has, the higher the cost of the insurance.
In the meantime, one side effect of No Child Left Behind has been the decimation of physical education from school curricula, no doubt contributing to the epidemic of overweight and obesity among children. This, in turn, is contributing to an increase in Type 2 diabetes -- previously referred to as "Adult Onset Diabetes," quickly becoming an obsolete name -- among children, and a higher risk of other chronic diseases including hypertension and high cholesterol, which themselves increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. It is disheartening to think that we are intentionally allowing a generation to become poster children for poor health, but there are no profits in preventive health care in our current system. According to a 2006 Forbes article, (2) global spending on prescription drugs surpassed $600 billion, "even as growth slowed in Europe and North America. ... . The United States still accounts for the lion's share of that, with $252 billion in annual sales, but sales in it and the other nine biggest markets grew by only 5.7%. But emerging markets such as China, Russia, South Korea and Mexico outpaced those markets, growing a whopping 81%."
The best way to beat the system is to outsmart it, and to fight the unhealthy forces that, as in China, are attempting to define us -- or create us -- as part of an emerging market of unhealthy consumers. Secondly, we must time and again return the health care debate to its correct track, demanding access to health care, not health insurance for all.
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