Mass hysteria is a poor method for allocating medical research resources. Surely we all agree on that in principle. But when it concerns any given hysteria, principle flies out the window.
Consider vaccine development efforts for the bacterium Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, compared to that of three germs that have killed no Americans — indeed few non-Americans — yet prompted frenzies. These three include Ebola virus, SARS, and avian flu H5N1.
MRSA suddenly received widespread attention because of a report on its prevalence released in the October 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It can cause infections in the bloodstream, lungs, and urinary tract.
Traditionally it has been associated with hospital surgical incisions, but as it becomes more common it's spreading beyond its normal breeding grounds.
According to the JAMA paper, prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 94,000 invasive MRSA infections in America in 2005, causing almost 19,000 deaths. Those figures appear to be increasing.
But while the JAMA findings were startling to the public, our public health authorities have long known of it – since 1961 in fact. Yet they’ve done very little about it.
Consider now the government reactions to the three mass hysteria diseases.The National Institutes of Health began a human clinical trial for the Ebola virus almost four years ago. Clinical trials for SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began almost three years ago. Both vaccines were developed by and are being tested by the U.S. government. Your tax dollars also paid for the development of the first approved human avian flu vaccine that the government is stockpiling.
As to MRSA, federally-supported research is still at the mouse level. Fortunately, two private companies, Nabi Pharmaceuticals and Merck & Co., have begun testing such vaccines on humans. But get this. The Nabi program is "on hold for further clinical development pending partnership or external funding of the program."
And just what threat do the three mass-hysteria diseases pose? Ebola is so hard to transmit that it’s killed nobody outside of two African countries. That said, the disease has been the subject of best-selling books like "The Hot Zone" and a film in which the virus threatens to the entire U.S. Do Hollywood and the best-seller lists influence the government funding decisions? You bet.
SARS infected only 27 Americans, killing none. Worldwide, it killed 774 people between its discovery in late 2002 and mid-2003, when it simply disappeared. SARS caused deaths in 11 countries. Yet during the disease's short life, between just two newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, there were over 850 articles — more than one article per death.
Does the press influence the government's decisions? You bet.
Yet H5N1 has killed no Americans. Even worldwide so far this year H5N1 as of November 18 has caused only 72 infections and claimed 48 lives, isolated in seven countries where poultry farming involves regular exposure to bird intestines and feces. Those cases and deaths are occurring at a lower rate this year than the previous two years.
Granted, most of the fear is not over what H5N1 is currently doing but rather what it might do if it became pandemic either by mutating in just the right way or combining in just the right way with seasonal flu in a person or an animal carrying both viruses.
In fact, all of the recorded worldwide recorded deaths from Ebola, SARS, and avian flu to date combined — 2,621 — are fewer than the number of Americans who die of MRSA every two months. MRSA also annually kills more Americans than AIDS, yet the federal AIDS research budget is over 13 times larger than that for the whole field of antimicrobial resistance.
There is no perfect formula for funding disease research. But letting panic-mongers in the press, government, and even Hollywood influence the decisions is clearly wrong. We need a government that pays more attention to medical statistics than to headlines. The one we have now is killing us.