Friday, June 19, 2009

Fumento’s Fractious Pandemic Prognostication

(You know me, always trying to build my word power, as they say - and I also posted some stuff here.)

The Philadelphia Inquirer published this Op-Ed today by Michael Fumento on the matter of the swine flu pandemic…

How bizarre. The World Health Organization has declared swine flu a pandemic, signaling that governments worldwide should launch emergency response plans.

The mildest pandemics of the 20th century killed at least a million people worldwide, according to the WHO's data, while old-fashioned seasonal flu strikes every nation yearly and kills an estimated 250,000 to 500,000. As of last week, when the swine-flu pandemic was declared, the H1N1 virus had killed a total of 144 people. In Mexico, where the outbreak began and has been most severe, the cases peaked quickly, in just four weeks.

A pandemic declaration will be costly at a time when we can least afford it, and it could prompt severe restrictions on human activities (think China). Perhaps most important, the declaration could render the term "flu pandemic" essentially meaningless, risking lethal public complacency if a bona fide one hits.
I think you get the idea of where Fumento is coming from based on this excerpt (and I fail to understand how he can apparently prioritize financial cost with what could be the cost to human lives and entire populations should this virus – which, as Wikipedia notes here, is already a mutation of four different viruses - mutate further and “become(s) more virulent and less susceptible to any vaccine developed to protect from an earlier strain”).

I should back up briefly and note that, according to this, $8 billion has been approved to fight the flu pandemic, so in addition to Fumento’s disingenuous argument IMHO, I have to wonder about the timing of this editorial (as noted here, pandemic preparedness funding has been one of many political “footballs”). But there you are (and I don't mean to "blow off" the issue of the war spending bill; I can only put out one fire at a time, as they say).

As Fumento points out in his editorial, the reason for the preparedness is to prevent any possible recurrence of the 1918-19 Spanish flu outbreak, which killed at least 20 million people. However, just because medical understanding and technology as well as pharmacology have advanced as they have over nearly the last 100 years, that doesn’t mean that we should take anything for granted.

But what the Inky doesn’t tell us here is that Fumento is an old hand as dismissing such public health threats; here, (footnote #8) in January 2007, he did the same thing over the “bird flu” (basically arguing that, hey, if it doesn’t threaten industrialized countries like ours, then don’t worry, be happy). And here (also along with Dr. James Chin, who Fumento cited in today’s Inquirer editorial), the headline is titled, “United Nations’ Panel Lowers Its Politically Correct AIDS Estimates,” which I think is a particularly repugnant headline given this.

I suppose I could dig deeper into the disease numbers here to critique what Fumento is saying, but I don’t think he should be taken all that seriously anyway when you consider that, as noted here (in the matter of FDA regulation of the tobacco industry)…

Fumento typically assumes positions on tobacco issues that are in favor of tobacco companies. He has been a vocal critic of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 1993 Risk Assessment on secondhand smoke.[5] In a July 7, 1996 article in the Rocky Mountain News, Fumento disputed whether the nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, stating "The FDA is using the addiction issue as an excuse to gain the power to regulate tobacco."[6]
And it gets even better, believe it or not…

"Scripps Howard News Service announced Jan. 13 that it's severing its business relationship with columnist Michael Fumento, who's also a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute," reported BusinessWeek in 2006. "The move comes after inquiries from BusinessWeek Online about payments Fumento received from agribusiness giant Monsanto -- a frequent subject of praise in Fumento's opinion columns and a book."
With this in mind, I’ll look forward to a future Inquirer editorial from Armstrong Williams on “No Child Left Behind” (here).

Update 6/21/09: Or Larry Sabato commenting on Virgil Goode's congressional campaign here, though we don't know that he did so, but still...(h/t Atrios).


Mike said...

Ah! The Monsanto hit job again, courtesy of Wikipedia!

Facts: In 1999 I received a one-year book grant from Monsanto. In mid-2003 I began a column with Scripps Howard. Very prescient of Monsanto to know I'd get that column four years later!

Of the approximately 130 columns I wrote for Scripps, two were about Monsanto even though my big issue at the time was agbiotech and Monsanto is the 300-lb. gorilla of agbiotech.

Meanwhile, back in 1999, shortly after receiving the grant, I RIPPED Monsanto in a Forbes magazine article.

I'm afraid the ad hominens just don't work with me. Oh, and by the way, who is going to pay me to say that flu outbreaks are exaggerated? The drug companies? Hah! I'm virtually always on the WRONG side of the money.

doomsy said...

As you know, you approached Monsanto to write a book about them, which is fine, but Scripps Howard dropped you because the nature of your business relationship with Monsanto was exposed by Business Week Online. That was pointed out by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post in January 2006, besides a Wikipedia citation. I don't know how else to respond to that remark about Monsanto knowing you would write a Scripps Howard column.

My point is that you have a history of taking positions against matters of public health versus any real or perceived costs to businesses that may be impacted by those costs to one degree or another. And I personally never alleged that drug companies were paying you off for saying so.

By the way, I just found an LA Times story dated today pointing out that swine flu "is spreading faster than ever," to the point where some school districts are concerned about starting classes again this fall (the story states that "experts believe that more than a million Americans have been infected"). Given this, how you can consider pandemic preparedness to be "bizarre" is something I cannot fathom.