Published November 5, 2016
One of my favorite movie scenes is from “Die Hard 2” when Bruce Willis, in the character of Lt. John...
— William Wilberforce
No, Jeffrey Sachs did not destroy the anti-vaccine movement in under two minutes. That’s just part of the catchy title given to a flashy new video produced by Emma Fierberg for the online publication Business Insider.1 In the video, renowned economist and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University Jeffrey Sachs attempts to explain why the people of the United States and other wealthy countries are so much better off now than ever before because of vaccines and other drugs. (Note that The Earth Institute receives financial support from the Merck Company Foundation for its health programs in Africa.)2 3
You know, we’re so lucky in the United States and other high income countries that we now live 80 years life expectancy. Many people can expect to live much longer than that. What a gift, compared to what life was like a century or two ago when life expectancy was 35 years or 40 years in the world, it’s doubled. And we live long and healthy lives because of the wonders of technology, vaccines and antibiotics, and knowledge about what causes disease and how to prevent it.1
The analysis, however, seems overly narrow and simplistic, and it fails to take into account that life expectancy in the U.S. had steadily been increasing before the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, the mass vaccination campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, and most of today’s modern medical diagnostic imaging, information and manufacturing technologies. In 1900, life expectancy for men in the U.S. was 46.3 years, and for women it was 48.3. By 1940, life expectancy for men had risen to 60.8, and for women it was up to 65.2.4 By 2013, the average life expectancy for American men and women had reached 79.5
So during the roughly 40 years between 1900 and just prior to the onset of the era of antibiotics, with the introduction of penicillin during the early-1940s,6 U.S. life expectancy rose by nearly 16 years. In the approximately 70 years since the widespread use of antibiotics and vaccines, U.S. life expectancy has also gone up by about 16 years.
What this suggests is that there was already an upward trend in life expectancy rates in the U.S. before antibiotics and vaccines. And that trend continued at much the same rate after the introduction of antibiotics, vaccines and many medical technologies. So at the very least, Professor Sachs has to consider the possibility that there were other more important factors that may have contributed to Americans living longer—environmental factors such as better sanitation, access to clean water, less air pollution, safer food, regular trash collection and less crowded conditions in cities and towns, indoor plumbing, and overall better standards of living.
You know, economic development.
Prof. Sachs seems perplexed as to how anyone could fail to appreciate such marvels of modern medicine and not be grateful for being saved from the Dark Ages. He continues…
So when you see that with all of that possibility that then there’s a rejection of the very things that keep us alive… People say I don’t want that vaccine, for example. It just makes you sad. It’s really horrible that we’ve come all this way, and still there’s so much confusion. Of course, so sad for me to see health workers even attacked in other countries that are giving vaccines because rumors have come that… oh they’re doing something nefarious, and health workers have been killed. But in the United States too! It’s unbelievable. Where are we? How can this be?1
See, that’s just it. The very things that keep us alive are not the drugs and the equipment. Ever hear of the human immune system? In fact, a great case can be made that it is precisely the misuse or overuse of these tools that is responsible for killing Americans in genocidal proportions. Studies show that approximately 400,000 to 440,000 people in the U.S. die as a result of medical mistakes each year, or the equivalent of more than 1,000 people a day. This is estimated to cost the U.S. about $1 trillion annually. Medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Only heart disease and cancer are bigger killers.7 8
About one quarter—some 128,000—of the medical mistakes involve prescription drugs.9 Deaths due to vaccines are extremely difficult to calculate. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintains a database known as Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, but it is commonly known that this passive reporting system contains only a small fraction of the vaccine-related injuries and deaths that actually occur. For 2014, VAERS reported 122 deaths from vaccines.10
For all of Prof. Sachs’ bravado about how fortunate Americans are to be living so long as a result of the drugs and technology, the fact is that he’s not even being completely forthright about how good we have it. Yes, Americans are living an average of almost 80 years. But of the nearly 320 million people in the U.S., about 90 million of them are living with chronic illness and disabilities.11 12 So we may be living longer, but we’re getting sicker, not healthier, as Prof. Sachs seems to imply.
Besides, U.S. life expectancy doesn’t actually look so great when you consider that the country ranks 26th in the world in this category. Slovenians live longer than Americans.13 And we should hang our heads in shame for the U.S. infant mortality rate, which at 6.1 deaths per 1,000 live births puts the U.S. at a shocking number 26 among economically developed nations.14 And yet the U.S. spends far more per capita ($8,508) on healthcare than any other country.15
Prof. Sachs goes on…
So we need to speak out and make sure that children have the right to be healthy, stay healthy. Their parents need to know… come on, you can’t leave your kids at risk this way, and the wonders of science are a gift for us. To throw them away would be an unbelievable tragedy. But when parents do that to their kids, it’s worse than a tragedy… that’s really a crime if you leave kids exposed to that kind of ignorance.1
Prof. Sachs is correct here: children do, indeed, have the right to be healthy and to stay healthy. The larger point is how they stay healthy, and who decides how they do it. And the crime, Prof. Sachs, isn’t leaving our kids exposed to what you describe as ignorance. What has the scent of ignorance and arrogance is when individuals such as yourself believe that you or doctors or government have the moral right—and should have the legal right—to dictate to parents what is best for their children.
It’s unbelievable. Where are we? How can this be?
1 Fierberg E. Watch Jeff Sachs destroy the anti-vaccine movement in under two minutes. Business Insider June 25, 2015.
2 Columbia University. The Earth Institute and Merck & Co., Inc./The Merck Company Foundation Collaborate To Strengthen Health Services In Rural Africa. The Earth Institute June 30, 2009.
3 Columbia University. Earth Institute and Merck Foundation Expand Health Program in Africa’s Millennium Villages. The Earth Institute May 17, 2011
4 Noymer A. UC Berkeley. Life expectancy in the USA, 1900-98, men and women. Department of Demography N.d.
5 The World Bank. World Development Indicators. N.d.
6 American Chemical Society. Discovery and Development of Penicillin. 2015.
7 McCann E. Deaths by medical mistakes hit records. Healthcare IT News July 18, 2014.
8 James JT. A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care. Journal of Patient Safety July 18, 2014; 9(3): 122-128.
9 Light DW. Harvard University. New Prescription Drugs: A Major Health Risk With Few Offsetting Advantages. Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics June 27, 2014.
10 Sharockman A. What CDC statistics say about vaccine-related illnesses, injuries and death. Tampa Bay Times Feb. 3, 2015.
11 The Dartmouth Institute. Care of Chronic Illness in Last Two Years of Life. The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care N.d.
12 Vieira M. Americans living with chronic illness. NBC News June 26, 2015.
13 Kliff S. The U.S. ranks 26th for life expectancy, right behind Slovenia. The Washington Post Nov. 21, 2013.
14 Centers for Disease Control. International Comparisons of Infant Mortality and Related Factors: United States and Europe, 2010. National Vital Statistics Reports Sept. 24, 2014; 63(5).
15 Bernstein L. Once again, U.S. has most expensive, least effective health care system in survey. The Washington Post June 16, 2014.