A lesson in blood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THERE ARE 20,000 hemophiliacs in the United States. Ten thousand of them are infected with HIV. Many of those infections PTC could and should have been prevented.

In the early 1980s, the nation's public health system had strong evidence the blood supply was contaminated with the virus that causes AIDS. It didn't have absolute proof, but by 1983 the warnings were as loud and intense as screams. And yet little action was taken. Blood donors were not properly screened. Patients were not warned about the risks. New steps to improve the safety of the blood supply were not taken.

One of the main reasons for this disastrous inaction, according to a report released last month by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, was the belief by top officials in the blood products industry that moving too quickly might cost too much money.

"It took a lot of us dying before HIV contamination of the blood supply was taken seriously," said Corey Dubin, a vice president of the Committee of Ten Thousand, which represents hemophiliacs who are HIV-positive.

The Academy of Sciences report found that the Food and Drug Administration, guardian of the blood supply, was too dependent in its decision-making on the advice of the industry it was supposed to be regulating. The industry did not want to deal with the expense of making big changes in the nation's blood supply system.

There were other factors at work. AIDS was a new and mysterious disease. The scope of the epidemic was not yet apparent. There were fears of a panic. But the reluctance of industry to spend money on the health and safety of the public and the reliance of government on an industry's analysis of a serious public health problem were among the key causes of a delay that ultimately cost thousands of lives.

Fast forward to 1995. The opponents of Sen. Bob Dole's so-called regulatory reform bill are upset precisely because it is an industry-sponsored effort to sabotage the agencies responsible for protecting the health and safety of Americans, and the environment in which we live.

The bill was conceived and largely drafted by industry representatives. Many of the Senate staffers working on the bill do not understand it. Three times the bill has been thwarted on the Senate floor, with Dole falling just short of enough votes to shut off debate.

The bill seemed dead. It should have been dead.

But it's not dead.

Two Democrats, Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia and Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, have made it their business to find a compromise that will save Dole's bill.

Let's see why.

Robb's old law firm is Hunton & Williams, the largest and most influential in Virginia. The firm's partners helped draft the regulatory bill, which would be a boon to their large corporate clients.

Robb received $23,225 from employees of Hunton & Williams and their relatives for his 1994 campaign against Oliver North. The senator also received $138,176 over six years from political action committees associated with the two largest industry front groups supporting the Dole bill -- Project Relief and the Alliance for Reasonable Regulation.

Project Relief alone has spent an astounding $30 million in its efforts to undermine the nation's health, safety and environmental laws. Robb said on Sunday he suspects he has received financial support from such groups because he has always been "reasonable" on issues that affect the business community.

Conrad, over six years and two Senate campaigns, has taken an enormous amount of money -- $398,023 -- from PACs associated with the two industry groups. Of the 22 senators who have received the most Project Relief PAC money, 21 are Republicans. The lone Democrat is Conrad.

The sordid, cynical effort to pass regulatory "reform" is all about money. The legislation is designed to enhance the profits of big business by tying the regulatory process in knots. Government officials will be virtually neutralized as they are forced to make endless cost-benefit analyses before determining whether to protect Americans from unsafe food or drugs, from dangers in the workplace, from a tainted blood supply, from pollutants in the environment, and on and on.

In our obsession with the bottom line we are being driven to quantify the unquantifiable.

A dollar sign should not be the symbol for the quality of our lives.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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