Monday, April 27, 2009

If you catch swine flu, sneeze on a Republican

Relenza anti-flu inhalant
The United States yesterday announced a health emergency due to the swine flu outbreak.

The announcement had to be made by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, instead of the Secretary of Health and Human Services or the head of the Centers for Disease Control, because we have no HHS secretary or CDC chief. Last week — when the news of swine flu had already broken — Senate Republicans delayed a vote to confirm Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas as HHS secretary, and the HHS secretary appoints the CDC director.

John Nicols, meanwhile, reminds us that the GOP fought to cut funding for pandemic preparedness from the emergency stimulus bill, ridiculing the idea, just as they continue to use misinformation to fight reform efforts that would open government health programs to the general public. Clearly, the Republican Party has no interest in protecting the health of Americans.

It's too early to tell whether this Mexican flu bug will become a pandemic or even spread widely in the United States. The concern expressed by experts worldwide scares me, though. Given the high level of travel between Chicago and Mexico, I'm surprised no cases of swine flu have yet been found here.

I'm particularly nervous because I wonder — since the disease has been so virulent and deadly in Mexico, a country recently embarked on universal health care — what will it be like if it really hits the U.S., with all our uninsured and under-insured millions?

The flu is not, for most people, a disease you go to the doctor for, particularly if you don't have health insurance or have only a catastrophic-coverage policy. The American ethic says that you're supposed to soldier on, toughing it out at work as long as you can, suffering silently. Especially if you don't get much — or any — sick time from your job.

The recent emergence of anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, which need to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, no doubt has sent some of the well-covered to seek early treatment, but most folks, even with insurance, likely wait till they feel absolutely miserable before considering visiting a doctor — too late for such medicines to be effective.

Each of those drugs costs between $60 and $100, maybe more, even with prescription coverage, plus the price of the doctor visit to get a script, not to mention the time off work to go and be seen — that's a lot of money just for the flu. In the announcements about making the anti-flu drugs available in the current outbreak, I haven't heard anything about making them available free.

If there should be a swine-flu epidemic, what are the uninsured and those with high insurance deductibles likely to do? They're going to get sick, and they're going to spread a deadly disease, because they can't afford to do anything else.

The GOP succeeded in stopping preparation for a possible flu pandemic, and we may all suffer for it. Don't let them stop health-care reform. Too many of us are suffering already.

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