The Pathogenic Arms Race | Letters | Chicago Reader

The Pathogenic Arms Race 

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Dear Reader:

I read with some nostalgia and sadness Jeffrey Felshman's account of his encounter with our life insurance industry's "only the healthy need apply" model of business operation, and his unexpected revelation that he had contracted hepatitis C somewhere in the misty past ["The Killer Inside Me," March 7].

I read the article while sitting in a parking lot after buying a (computer) antivirus package and PCI card, then drove south in a state of reminiscence toward Hyde Park along the jeweled coast of my adopted city. Having grown up in the shadow, as it were, of Verdi Square, and then made a similar migration from Manhattan's frenetic hustle to Chicago's relative big-city tranquility, I cannot help but think how we are all, in our fashion, a nation of refugees searching for an elusive sanctuary. And there is no sanctuary.

I also reflect how far we have fallen from the mid-(20th)-century delusion that science had conquered infectious disease, only to find ourselves in an arms race with pathogens. That most of the 4 million Americans and 200 million around the world estimated to have HCV only wish they could get treatment at Northwestern or even had health insurance of any kind. That our culture of stigma, health care for profit, and compulsive legislation of morality only serve to create a fertile climate for delayed diagnosis and the inevitable spread of infectious disease our society pretends to regard as marginal.

Neither social status, education, or economic security can insulate any of us from viral replication. Privatization of what remains of public health insurance is not likely to make more health care available to the ill. Donor cards and China's executed convicts together will not produce enough organs to satisfy the demand for liver replacements--David Crosby's celebrity luck notwithstanding.

There is hope that profit for pharmaceutical companies like Vertex, ViroPharma, Idenix, Rigel, Boehringer Ingelheim, and others, searching for the new antiviral cash cow, will produce a viable drug from research being done on polymerase and protease inhibitors. Patent suits blocking new drug development by the Chiron Corporation, which first identified the hepatitis C virus, and a notable lack of federal support and advocacy by--or for--people affected by it, have contributed to the current crisis where we have five times as many HCV infections as HIV, yet there is only one available drug treatment, which is effective half the time at best.

Of course, I suppose people could appear at public health stations en masse for testing, deluge their representatives with letters, and take over their local city halls until the television crews arrive, and demand the commitment and the resources needed to fund research and treatment.

Sorry...wrong decade. We have Other Priorities. There's a war to fight now. Keep taking that milk thistle, Jeffrey, and give my regards to P.

Howard Wait

Uptown

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