In this election season, health challenges have received little attention, according to an article in Scientific American. The journal recently asked policy experts at universities, members of nonprofits and foundations, and leading scientists about top scientific issues––what government should be doing to promote health and safety––that the candidates should have discussed, but didn’t. Three major health care challenges were on the list.
Number one was antibiotic resistance. Twenty-three thousand people die in the United States each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, and by 2050, it has been estimated that rogue bacteria will kill more people than cancer.
Unlike heart disease or diabetes drugs, an antibiotic is usually used for just a single occurrence of an illness, which makes pharmaceutical companies reluctant to invest money into developing new ones, according to the article. Congress could help by funding some of the research as well as by enacting legislation that eases the economic burden of testing new antibiotics, the experts said.
Meanwhile, 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to cattle and other food animals. U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (D–New York) has proposed legislation that would prohibit the use of antibiotics in healthy animals.
The experts said we should also try to prevent the spread of infections in the first place—by encouraging hand washing and safe cooking practices.
The policy mavens were also asked about the challenge of obesity, which affects more than a third of American adults. Obesity is associated with numerous diseases—the treatment of which costs the U.S. more than $147 billion a year. The experts agreed that there is no single way to reduce obesity because so many factors can affect weight, including income, education, access to healthful food, and physical activity. This is confounded by the fact that weight is not necessarily an indicator of overall health. States and city governments have introduced policies aimed at changing people’s exercise and eating habits, and at fighting the hold that fast food has on the American diet, the experts noted.
Finally, they were asked to address the controversial issue of terminal patients’ “right to die.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the right to medically assisted death is not constitutionally protected, leaving legislation up to the states. Assisted suicide is now legal in Montana, Vermont, Washington State, California, and Oregon—and 20 other states and the District of Columbia are considering the move. But as right-to-die legislation gains traction, the experts said, it is becoming as polarizing as the abortion debate, raising similar religious and ethical questions about an individual’s rights and who should have authority in matters of life and death.