Pneumonia has taken center stage in the 2016 election, after it was disclosed that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton contracted the disease. She was to return to the campaign trail today, after taking a break following a public medical episode that forced her to leave the 9/11 memorial on Sunday as young relatives of the victims, some babies during the attack, read the names of the dead.
Pneumonia has been killing Syrian refugees since 2011, many of them children–one of several anachronistic Dickensian diseases, cholera, typhoid, spread through overcrowded camps. A vaccine exists, but a doughnut hole in international aid deprives Middle Eastern countries of help buying the shots. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer makes one of the most common pneumonia vaccines, Prevenar 13.
Pfizer is also a major donor to Clinton initiatives, including the aim to become president. If Hillary Clinton takes the oath to defend the constitution in January, it’s a certainty that at that time pneumonia will be bringing slow death to Syrian refugee children, as it has for five winters. Although they’re dying fifteen years after 9/11, these children are also victims of the chaos, horror and war fever September 11 summoned.
Pfizer can’t help but profit from the plight of refugees, it’s a pharmaceutical company. But hundreds of millions of dollars in international subsidy through Gavi: The Vaccine Alliance with UNICEF support ensures that Pfizer and other participating companies still make money even when offering the drug at a reduced price. In the U.S., the drug costs 450 dollars. International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has also called on the company to reveal the real cost of producing Prevenar 13. In any case, the company is making billions, as is their right as a sovereign legal person with hopes and dreams and hobbies, like making astronomical amounts of money as long as an endemic communicable lung infection remains uneradicated.
MSF believes the company can afford to reduce the price of the world’s most profitable vaccine, especially as refugee numbers climb. MSF has this year collected 400,000 signatures showing public support for cutting the price of the drug, from $10 dollars for a full course of treatment to $5 dollars. Poorer countries that bargain for drug prices on the international market still can’t afford the $10 price. Nevertheless, the drug, the best seller in the world, MSF says, made Pfizer $16 billion dollars over a four year span.
Clinton is in a unique position to persuade Pfizer to reduce the costs of the vaccine, Prevenar 13, and help save the lives of Syrian refugee children. And this is especially crucial for middle eastern countries, which are technically too wealthy to receive international subsidy from The Vaccine Alliance, a UNICEF backed global vaccination program.
“What we are trying to highlight here is that many countries are left out of that mechanism. Countries like Libya, Jordan and Lebanon aren’t poor enough to qualify for that Gavi support,” MSF spokesperson Kate Elder told me in 2015, when I first wrote about the their protest. “Many of them have not introduced the vaccine because they can’t afford it.”
It’s a problem familiar to people seeking welfare; they’re too rich to qualify for help but not wealthy enough to get by without it.
Over the last week, the coverage of Clinton stumbling after appearing to faint (video recorded by a private citizen with a smartphone, not the huge press corps that follows her) has led to innumerable jabs and counter jabs in the media about whether it is news at all, usually from Clinton supporters. Or, on the other side, the Alt Right sees it as an incontrovertible indicator of Clinton’s unfitness to hold office. (Also that she is going to die or that she has a body double). Her collapsing into a black van, held up by bodyguards and aides, replayed over and over again on cable news, certainly got ratings, or they wouldn’t replay it over and over again. Commentators blaming the media for slavish adherence to a doctrine of “false equivalence” (e.g. “Clinton has pneumonia but why aren’t you talking about how Trump is an accused rapist and his supporters are subhuman creatures?”), should remember that news is a business, especially TV news. Trump makes much better TV than Clinton, because Trump is unpredictable.
I hope Clinton feels better. I had pneumonia once, and it was awful.
She should start talking about the disease as a global public health issue, one that kills a million children a year. This is a hard one for the “America First” crowd to challenge without looking callous and cruel. They don’t want to see children die, do they?
Taking on Pfiizer on behalf of poor children worldwide, even American ones, is something the cynics wouldn’t predict. It’d be unpredictable. With her “basket of deplorables” comment she appears to be taking on Trump’s penchant for insult. But Trump is much better at it than she is. She should try to be unpredictable in some kind of constructive way, not excommunicating her fellow Americans from public life.
The media could also play its part, by informing the public of actual threats to their lives, like pneumonia. Among the American media’s chief sins is the discounting of non-American lives, especially poor ones. But pneumonia is also a problem for American children, with the lung infection being the number one cause of childhood hospital visits. In the rest of the world, it’s the number one killer of children, with 14 million cases reported each year, according to the American Thoracic Society.
Clinton supporters often tell me that they believe their candidate is best for the presidency because of her wide network of national and international connections, connections some felt Sanders lacked. But what is the value of these connections? Clinton insists that she takes money from big pharma and Wall Street but that they expect nothing in return.
Let’s say that’s true. The only other way of interpreting their largess is that they must really like the Clintons as a couple. If that’s the case, then Clinton must have some sway with them. Right? Asking for a reduction in price of an already heavily subsidized vaccine would be within her power. She must have at least met Ian C. Read and other members of the Pfizer Executive Leadership Team. Clinton could turn her bout with pneumonia into an opportunity to talk about global public health, force the media to cover the issue, and pressure Pfizer into significantly reducing the price of the vaccine. It fits into what she has been saying throughout the campaign: She fights for children, and for their healthcare. She is a humanitarian. She will fight for you.
The din of the election season is drowning out this narrative, replacing it with whatever Trump wants it to be. Trump’s unpredictable antics make for TV that sells ads, and Clinton staid, predictable approach doesn’t. She has admitted as much, that she is not the star campaigner others are. But she has opportunity here to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and do real good for millions of children. Since Pfizer never expected anything in return for their millions, except to become better friends, all Clinton needs to do to help refugee children is send Pfizer an email. Or maybe make a phone call this time. Lives depend on it.