19 March, 2015

Bill Gates and The New Yorker: advertorial journalism at its finest

The Gates Foundation has been out and about, promoting vaccination. With a backlash from parents cautious about the increasing amount of vaccines being given to children, they have also seemingly started to put advertorial pieces in magazines like the New Yorker. Rather than persuade people, however, I’d argue that these kinds of advertorial journalism, funded by big foundations, actually work to alienate people from the causes they are advocating.

The piece about vaccines that ran in the New Yorker is a mixture between the fine, old fashioned public service announcements crossed with a bit of authoritarianism: “Vaccinate your kids immediately, (stupid) parents.” Before this, the New Yorker also ran a piece about the Bill Gates and his new interest in recycled water. The piece then cleverly mixes up Monsanto’s bio-engineering, implying that both water recycled from sewage, and genetically modified seeds, inspire unreasonable disgust in people even when they are both perfectly safe.

The problem with this kind of juxtapositions, of course, is that its immediately apparent to any rational adult who’s been paying attention to these topics that recycled water, which is in fact safe to drink, is very different from Monsanto, which is a virulent global transnational corporation that has been rampaging throughout the world destroying farmers’ seed stocks with its genetically modified terminator seeds. Uh-uh, New Yorker—not the same thing at all, and just by putting those two things close to each other doesn’t wash away the global disgust people feel for Monsanto.

The vaccine piece that admonishes parents for not vaccinating their children also does not address the underlying unease that parents have with the pharmaceutical industry.

With new vaccines being developed like software, and new and untried pharmaceutical companies expecting to make mega-profit lining up at the stock market to offer their latest invention to the discerning stock-and-bond buyer, there is a sense of uncertainty about where exactly the vaccine enterprise is heading. This is no longer the days of the good doctors spending hours at the laboratories to come up with vaccines that save millions of lives. The process has now become highly commercial, actively traded in Wall Street with an eye to profit. And when that happens, the trust the public had in the good, old-fashioned pioneers of medicine erodes.

A colleague of mine, who had recently had a child, was telling me about the vaccines available in the market. Although there was the option of getting it for free (or perhaps very low cost), her husband insisted they get the expensive version. “I feel it’s the same thing, but of course I couldn’t say “no” since its my child and I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t care about my child in a matter like this,” she says. But, she added, the costly vaccines were very expensive. And increasingly, this is going to the choice that hits people in Third World countries: that although they know, rationally, the government subsidized vaccines are just as good (perhaps even better), there will be social pressure to buy the more expensive kind. And in places where a few hundred dollars are hard to come by—this is how much the “expensive” vaccines cost—then its going to lead to soaring health costs for already fragile budgets.

With the ebola crisis, it is even more clear to the “conspiracy theorists” amongst us—and I’d say by now the majority of the world believes in conspiracy—that until the opaque workings of the nation-security agencies of the US are revealed, the public cannot trust that disease is not being mobilized as a weapon of war against entire regions of the world. The CDC lists the ebola virus as an “invention” and holds a patent to it—their claim is searchable on Google. If the ebola virus is an invention, that what else can be invented? What other sorts of bio-technology tha could be used as weapons of war to destabilize entire regions are in the making? To add to the mess, the CIA used the polio vaccination program in Pakistan as a front to conduct its activities, leading to the erosion of community trust in vaccines in an already poor region. Until the US’s myriad dark agencies, including DARPA, come into the open and explain exactly what they are working upon, the public is going to remain suspicious, and the trust people once had in public health interventions are going to erode.

This means Mr. Gates cannot simultaneously be a vaccine evangelist on the one hand, and then buy Monsanto stocks on the other. Monsanto, of course, seems to have its fingers in myriad sticky pies, including bio-engineering and pharmaceuticals. This is known as “conflict of interest.” If he’s really the philanthrophic figure he projects himself to be, Mr Gates cannot simultaneously buy stocks and share in a for-profit company that has a morally questionable history. Philanthropy has its own ethical guidelines, one that cannot be washed away with recycled water or by calling its critics stupid.

If the trust the public had in vaccines is to be restored, there should be strict guidelines that ban companies from trading in speculative profits on vaccines. The task of creating new medicines should return to the non-profit sector, with the pharmaceutical world tightly controlled through regulations about how much profit it can make from a medication.  And the SEC must ban Wall Street from listing the offerings of pharmaceutical companies.

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