Up until the first half of the twentieth century, large-scale health disasters were mostly due to natural causes (earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.) or infections (e.g., smallpox, influenza epidemics, cholera). But something peculiar happened as we entered the second half of the century: Health disasters due to natural causes became dwarfed by large-scale health disasters that are man-made.
Here’s a list of the Six Worst U.S. Health Disasters of the Last 50 Years, mostly man-made phenomena that have exacted huge tolls: widespread disease, premature death, poorly managed (though nonetheless highly profitable for healthcare insiders–but perhaps that is the rub). This is not to make light of the lesser health disasters over the same time period, ranging from lead poisoning in children, to E. coli contamination of high-volume commercial produce, to proliferation of gun violence. But it highlights the tidal wave of change in the landscape of health disasters. We have gone from being victims of forces beyond our control to forces that are under human influence, even profitable to those “properly” positioned.
The Six Worst U.S. Health Disasters of the Last 50 Years
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans–A joint effort between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) resulted in the first U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980—and the American public has yet to recover from its disastrous campaign of misinformation, some of the blunders due to ignorance, others due to the corrupting influence of industry. The “cut your fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol” and increased reliance on “starches” (grains) began with the guideline’s first version in 1980, gaining fat-cutting, grain-consuming momentum with each subsequent version. The first version was also responsible for propagating the nonsensical notion that “complex” carbohydrates are better than simple sugars.
As the weight of Americans climbed with the release of the guidelines, so did their level of insulin resistance, resulting in a surge in type 2 diabetes after a few year lag of weight gain:
To gauge the scale of this health disaster, just look at the numbers: There are now nearly 40 million Americans with type 2 diabetes that necessitate oral and injectable medications and over the long-term result in amputations, blindness, heart disease, and abbreviate lives by an average of 8 years. Or how about the 200 million Americans who are overweight or obese and thereby suffer excess risk for joint arthritis, Alzheimer’s dementia, cancer, and heart disease, not to mention the psychological toll? Or the nearly 25 million Americans who now have one or more autoimmune conditions, diseases virtually unknown in cultures that do not follow a diet such as ours. The sheer scale of health impairment initiated by the Dietary Guidelines, further amplified by cutthroat profiteering practices of Big Food and Big Pharma, are unprecedented in scale, dwarfing the human toll of any natural disaster.
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising permitted by the FDA–Once the FDA opened the door to DTC drug advertising, Big Pharma quickly recognized that it was a license to print money. TV and print media drug ads proliferated. Today, you cannot watch more than few minutes of TV without viewing a barrage of ads for Farxiga, Humira, Enbrel, Harvoni and countless others, many commanding price tags of thousands of dollars per month. Only two countries on earth permit DTC drug ads: the U.S. and New Zealand, the two nations on earth with the world’s highest healthcare costs.
Big Pharma now spends $6 billion per year to run DTC ads. But who pays for these $6 billion in ads? You do, through increased drug prices and increased healthcare insurance premiums, as well as the health toll that the world of imprecise, side-effect-plagued modern drugs can be. Are DTC drug ads, on balance, beneficial or harmful? Surely increased awareness of pharmaceutical agents is beneficial. The problem: the majority of Americans, given disastrous or ineffective health advice from doctors and the drug industry they support, unquestioningly follow their doctor’s advice and are avid consumers of these drugs, even request them. Drug prescriptions beget more drug prescriptions, as the awful side-effects of these drugs often oblige more drugs to deal with side-effects. Public health has become a pharmaceutically-supported disaster, while Big Pharma continues to grow its bottom line. Americans in the 35-49 age group fill 6 prescriptions per year on average, the 50-64 age group fill 13 prescriptions per year, while those in the 65-79 age group fill 20 per year—and the number of prescription drugs consumed per capita is growing.
But the impact of DTC drugs ads doesn’t end there. Big Media—network and cable TV, as well as most print media—is now fearful of antagonizing this cash cow of advertising dollars. Media no longer reports news that might antagonize their number one source of ad dollars. Big Pharma has, in effect, purchased the allegiance of Big Media. DTC drug advertising now means that virtually all mainstream media is now friendly to the drug industry and you cannot obtain objective reporting of the problems with drugs or healthcare, essentially squashing free speech and objective reporting on the enormous, systemic problems in healthcare. The result: We are a pharmaceuticalized society, thanks to Big Pharma, doctors, Big Media, and the FDA, and the problem grows at double-digit rates annually, while there is almost no public conversation about this health disaster.
And much of the “need” for prescription drugs was created by the disaster of U.S. dietary guidelines: one enormous disaster feeding another disaster. The scale of this combined health disaster is staggering. And it is entirely man-made.
The proliferation of medical liability lawsuits–Before you think that I’ve become an apologist for the medical system, hear me out.
For many years, being a physician meant you were—rightly or wrongly—respected, your opinions appreciated. Then medical liability lawsuits began to proliferate, sometimes for legitimate malpractice, other times for trivial reasons, anger, or greed. But one of the inevitable fallouts of this trend was widespread disenchantment among practicing physicians who responded by practicing defensive medicine, ordering diagnostic tests far beyond those truly necessary, specialty consultations that resulted in proliferation of unnecessary procedures, drugs, and complications. More and more, doctors came to view medicine no longer as a calling or duty, but as a business, something to exploit for personal profit. Patients became customers or sources of exploitation, a source of revenue, the sanctity of life and health viewed as vehicles for profit. And, predictably, Big Pharma and the gargantuan medical device industry were more than willing to ride and service this trend. The U.S. market for Big Pharma alone, given the complicity of the medical community who no longer dispense advice to support health but to support revenues, now approaches half -a-trillion dollars annually—money out of your pocket, with your friends, family, and relatives the unwitting recipients of this lawsuit-happy juggernaut.
The explosion of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)–This neurodevelopmental disorder now affects nearly 2% of all children, an unprecedented phenomenon, and not just an artifact of better diagnosis, but of actual occurrence. The condition has increased 30% in just the last 5 years.
ASD is almost certainly a multifactorial phenomenon, i.e., a result of numerous environmental, nutritional, and genetic influences. At the current rate, there may be a time in the not-too-distant future when ASD is not the exception, but the rule. Given the explosive trajectory of ASD, it points towards something that we have introduced, as opposed to something that is purely genetic. It might be components of diet, it could be dysbiosis given modern chemical exposures, it might be a dozen or more factors, all conspiring to impair neurological development. But make no mistake: ASD is a modern health disaster, a development unprecedented in human history, yet another creation of humans.
Drug addiction–Drug addiction has been in the news lately because of the modern opioid addiction crisis that is resulting in an unprecedented surge in overdose deaths:
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that there are now 90 deaths per day from opioid overdose alone. Yes, once again a man-made health disaster, created and worsened by loose prescribing practices and the drug industry’s insistence that opioids are not addicting.
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)–Yes, there is a non-man-made disease in this list of large-scale health disasters. Worldwide, AIDS has reached pandemic proportions, responsible for nearly one million deaths in the U.S. since the early 1980s.
I remember the first few cases of AIDS I witnessed during my internal medicine training in the mid-1980s. Desperately ill young men were being hospitalized at my university hospital and we would recover fungi and other soil organisms from their blood and lungs, reflecting the profoundly impaired immunity of this viral illness. In those days, no one survived. The AIDS situation has improved substantially over the subsequent 40 years with the development of antivirals (and, yes, a testimony to the effectiveness of conventional medical methods in infectious illnesses), though it remains a serious diagnosis.
Surely there are other health disasters in our future. Just witness the destruction of hurricane Irma a few months ago. If such climate extremes are indeed due to global climate change, there is a very limited contribution we can make as individuals. But, when it comes to health disasters that are purely man-made, products of misinformation, misinterpretation, and ulterior motive, we can indeed exert substantial personal control. Unlike a hurricane or earthquake, such man-made health disasters are something you can stay clear of with a little knowledge. By examining the landscape of enormous human health disasters, you can discern patterns here: So much of modern disease is not due to bad luck or bad genes, but to bad advice and bad policy. It means that programs such as the USDA My Plate is destructive and harmful, it means that DTC drug advertising ensures that you no longer hear the real stories behind healthcare problems. But it also means that YOU are the arbiter of how you conduct your own personal campaign of health.
Bottom line: Take back personal control over health by ignoring most of the health advice delivered by government agencies and others in the business of profiting from your health struggles.