‘Tis the season. Long before “holiday giving” became a catch phrase, a group sought to slow down America’s No. 1 infectious killer, one penny at a time. So began Christmas Seals – the campaign which in 1907 set out to conquer the “white plague.”
A few readers will guess what that plague was, or is. Most won’t.
Indeed, visit the Christmas Seals website and see that the plague — tuberculosis – is but a turn-of-the-century footnote. The National Lung Association, which launched Christmas Seals, now focuses mostly on lung cancer, asthma and emphysema. By the time this century rolled around, TB effectively had been tamed on these shores.
Yes, just a footnote, except that with all the attention given to Ebola of late, do you know the second greatest infectious killer in the world? That’s tuberculosis. You read it corectly. Nearly eradicated here. Ravaging continents “over there.”
At the height of the Ebola scare, I heard from James A. Holcombe, professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas, who observed of the hysteria, “People have trouble ‘scaling’ and understanding probability” when it comes to real and perceived threats.
“In a world of 7 billion people, it is trivial to find hundreds (thousands?) of atrocities on any given day. Such events are, unfortunately, fodder for media outlets . . . I worry that many fail to see the difference in the size of the landscape on which these unrelated reports are occurring.”
Meanwhile, few Americans know that TB keeps killing on a grand scale. And why? Because there’s nothing sensational about it.
TB, for instance, is a major cause of death among people with HIV. It takes them when AIDS has ravaged their immune systems.
Speaking of AIDS: It used to be sensational, too. But few Americans, bottle-fed on televised hype, happy talk and political spin, know this sobering fact: AIDS is the No. 1 infectious killer on the planet.
Ah, but ’tis the season. In that spirit, let me spread a little good news. Better than good: It's stunningly good:
The United States, which can’t seem to get its act together to deal with any matter that doesn’t involve military drones, has done a positively herculean job confronting AIDS, TB and malaria.
Michael Elliott, CEO of the international advocacy group ONE, says the fact that the $50 billion our country has committed over the last 10 years has saved more than 7 million lives overseas. The leadership and the credit are shared by two administrations – Bush and Obama.
U.S. contributions have made the work of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria one of the most amazing stories in the history of human interaction.
When it comes to tuberculosis, two players have been key, and both are regular punching bags for America’s political right. The first is the World Health Organization. The second is the United Nations – yes, that tea party villain — whose service arm, UNICEF, has shouldered the lion’s share of providing affordable prevention and treatment. It is effective in part because prevention and treatment of TB is relatively inexpensive.
Such efforts wouldn’t be possible without the Global Fund. An unsung hero in helping the fund is RESULTS, a no-nonsense non-profit that focuses on global poverty and its causes. I invite you to Google RESULTS, then ask yourself if a government supported by you would do well to follow its advice aimed at needs domestic and international.
Christmas Seals — as with the March of Dimes in its battle against infantile paralysis — is a great American success story. But no one presumes that piles of pennies and dimes alone could have done what the two hoped to do. Government had to get involved.
Of course, if government isn’t about saving lives, maybe we should do what some poorly informed people ache to do and just shut her down.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.