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Stephen Gottlieb: Cooperation Required For Major Health Threats

First, it’s so good to have WAMC back doing regular programming. Congratulations all.

Many stations try to give us “news you can use,” by which they mean the things we can do for ourselves. But the things that really matter are the things that require our cooperation.

If we look at our major health threats, I think most people would name heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity. I sympathize with that position. With the help or advice of my doctors I'm keeping diabetes and my heart under control, partly by getting closer to what I weighed in college. So now we have a national health care system. Got those licked.

Actually treating our diseases makes a much smaller difference in our lives and health than public health systems – in the past the virtual eradication of polio when I was a teen, the creation of clean water supply systems and much more.

In the same vein, the biggest health risks to us now are not the specific diseases but the circumstances that put us at risk. One is the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed that threatens the resurgence of all the diseases that we've been able to treat with antibiotics. That includes pneumonia, the ear infection that killed my three-year old sister before antibiotics were discovered, and the blood infections from common cuts that once ended many lives long before they were old enough to worry about the diseases that scare us now.

Even bigger are the ways that burning coal and oil put us all at risk. Most Americans still haven’t absorbed the damage to our health that climate change will do. But the impact is enormous. A warmer climate is more hospitable to diseases we haven't faced in this country. Climate change spawns increasingly vicious storms that kill, maim and leave us homeless. It also includes the extended droughts that destroy farms and harvests.  It includes the acidification of the oceans which threatens the food we harvest from the seas.

Clean air and water, a cooler planet, seas that support the fish we eat, and should eat, are not things we can buy individually. Indeed, no matter how much we work to find and buy meat that has not been treated with antibiotics, we can’t get a world free of antibiotic resistant microbes by ourselves.

Conservatives take self-reliance to an extreme that would have shocked the Founders. The Founders said “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one, and the Continental Congress put it on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. [1] The Founders understood there are many things that can only be accomplished if we work together. Health is one. My health is not independent of yours. To paraphrase Franklin, either we all work on public health together, or we all die together.


[1]Rafael Alberto Madan, The Sign and Seal of Justice, 7 Ave Maria L. Rev. 123, 138-39, 141 (2008).

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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