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Why Do Half of Americans Have Chronic Illness?

Posted Jun 02 2008 1:00pm
A new poll among 100,000 Americans has me thinking we are all a bunch of human guinea pigs. The new Gallup survey found that 51% of Americans struggle with chronic illness. The CDC is at least giving lip service to these findings:

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the findings can help launch a new approach to health care in the United States.

"We are investing the most of any country in the world -- $2 trillion -- and we rank 37th in terms of health," Gerberding told the news conference.

Healthways President Ben Leedle said 51 percent of Americans are stuck in a cycle of chronic disease such as heart disease and diabetes, in part because of their poor choices.

But why are we so ill? Is it really "our choices" that have made us so sick? What would CDC's "new approach" be? (Warning: this post gets kind of radical...) We spend the most on healthcare of any nation. We have the most vaccinated population. We think these things should make all of us healthy, but something's wrong.

From my research, it's clear that federal programs and policies have forced us to trade mortality for morbidity. We can extend quantity of life, but at the cost of quality of life. Most of our "choices" are dictated by federal agencies. We have robbed Peter to pay Paul. Here are some examples:

  • USDA: The 1980s Food Pyramid launched an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. These are the exact conditions it was supposed to prevent. Farm subsidies for the least nutritious foods - wheat, corn, soy, and rice - create a disincentive to choose more nutrient-dense foods. More than 70% of the average diet is based on nutrient-free white flour. Flour is cheap, so no one is starving in our country, however, this leads to an odd phenomenon where we are simultaneously stuffed and starved - our food-supply is "watered down" due to these nutrient-poor food choices. Even when we choose vegetables or fruit, they have fewer nutrients per bite because we have whipped the soil in which they grow to produce the maximum yield. Paradoxically, we have more food, but fewer nutrients. As the USDA incents farmers to produce more, they need to sell more, so we consume more. Are human beings the same as foie gras geese? With more than half of us overweight or obese, I'm seeing little difference.
  • CDC: Our health care system is actually a "sick care" system. Vaccines may save lives (and some say that is debatable or patently false), but they likely contribute to allergies, autism, asthma, arthritis, and even autoimmune conditions. How many injured kids equal one child's life saved, assuming vaccines do actually work? I'd hate to be the Public Health official in charge of that equation. Can you imagine having a spreadsheet that showed 20 children with autism is equal to one saved from polio? Really. That's the equation. Morbidity versus mortality. And who pays the price? Not the government -- they are trying their best to prove they are not responsible since it might bankrupt our country if they were.
  • NIH and FDA: Medical errors kill the equivalent of six jumbo jets of people -- per day -- and "side effects" from prescription drugs kill 106,000 people per year. We've ingested and excreted so many prescription drugs that they are are showing up in our municipal drinking water. The average water filter does nothing to protect us. If you drink tap or even filtered water, you are part of Prozac Nation, whether you asked for it or not. Remember SOMA from Aldous Huxley's book, Brave New World? That's not science fiction anymore.
  • FDA: Chemicals are introduced into our environment and our food supply and they are innocent until proven guilty. Excuse me, but chemicals shouldn't have the same rights as citizens. With the exception of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund (which we actually pay for via a surcharge on each shot), chemicals don't even have to post bail. They are free to circulate in our bloodstreams and accumulate until they start making enough people sick that we begin to investigate. Agent Orange, DDT, mercury, thalidomide -- the list is endless. Again, we are guinea pigs. (Photo to right shows a victim of Agent Orange.)
  • DOE and EPA: We continue to use dirty energy when clean alternatives are available. Every time we turn on a light, a coal-fired power plant makes our electricity and pollutes our land and oceans with mercury. In fact, using electricity from coal is the number one reason we are advised to avoid shark, mackerel, swordfish and tuna. They have dangerous levels of mercury, mainly due to our electricity consumption. How much longer will it be until every type of fish has so much mercury in it that we can no longer eat any fish safely?

We are one big human experiment gone awry. We are guinea pigs inhaling smoke from a lab that's on fire.

This 5 minute 9 second video, Most Astonishing Health Disaster of the 20th Century, is particularly hard for me to watch, as I 'blink 'em back' each time I view it, but it's worth it if you want to understand what is going on with our health. (Email subscribers, please click through to the med nauseum site to see the video.)


Sure, life is more convenient these days. Happily, fewer people die, but we have more people living with chronic illness. Is it worth it? Isn't there a safer way to manage a population's health? Should we emulate Canadian and European national healthcare models where the government knows they'll have to pay for medical conditions they create when they approve chemicals or bad medical treatments, or market nutrient-free food? Those countries invoke the Precautionary Principle far more often than the U.S. - erring on the side of caution rather than risking ill health in the population.

My own mother was a medical experiment in the 1940s when her doctors arbitrarily radiated her thymus since they deemed it too big. She was a little girl. As a young adult, this radiation led to Hodgkin's Disease. Massive amounts of radiation gave her thirty-five more years of life. Five years ago she died due to the long-term consequences of radiation poisoning -- all dating back to the thymus radiation. This is not a unique story. We all know someone who has chronic illness and we all know someone who is a medical experiment. Most of us are.

I'm another example. I initially became disabled after a trip to Bali. I received a bunch of travel vaccinations before the trip and collapsed during a Balinese performance. I spent the next 3.5 years in bed and am still not as healthy as before that trip. I have spent an average of $20,000 per year since 1996 seeking diagnoses, paying for supplements, buying special food. It allows me a normal life, not a bedridden one, but I'm still yoked to a special diet and supplement program to keep me healthy. It's expensive and time consuming but I really have no choice. Looking back at my life, I have one regret: I wish I'd been more informed about vaccines. I wish I hadn't had blind faith in medicine.

Like most MBAs, I'm not a huge advocate of anything socialized, but I'm increasingly interested in national health care. Why? Because then the government would be 'holding the bag' when they make us sick. The government would finally have a financial incentive to protect the health of its citizens. Today, we are left with the expense of our illnesses, though we are doing what our government - whom we think is acting in our best health interest - is telling us or incenting us to do.

Shouldn't the head of any health-related government agency be off-limits for lobbying and special interest money? They are in charge of our health. Shouldn't they be as uninfluenceable as a Supreme Court judge? That's a law I would get behind. And, I realize that this would affect corporate profits at Big Food, Big Farm, and Big Pharma and that this would lead to higher taxes since we need to get the money to run our country from somewhere, but I'm ready to pay with my dollar rather than my body.

We are coming to a tipping point where most of our bodies are showing signs of our own negligence. Earth is showing these same signs. We are collectively waking up to the fact that we have begun to destroy Earth as we know it, but why are most of us - Julie Gerberding, I'm asking you - so oblivious to the destruction of the precious ecosystem in each of our bodies?

Excuse me for sounding so radical and for sounding a little like Michael Moore, but the big picture is coming together for me and I don't like it. I'm all for making a profit, but I'm also into ethics -- profits cannot be at the expense of my health or yours.

Intrigued or enraged? Please forward and comment.
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