Opinion | El-Sayed podcast provides much needed recognition of intersectionality of health and politics


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Dr. Abdul El-Sayed hosts the “America Dissected” podcast.

By Loretta Donoghue, For The Pitt News

At a time when our nation’s leaders are bickering back and forth on Twitter, reaching the masses with no more than 280 characters at a time, political podcasts offer a refreshing alternative.

Even within the world of digital audio, there are more than 750,000 podcast shows, and more than 30 million episodes — finding a podcast that you can rely on for accurate information can seem daunting.

The one podcast that has proven to rise above the rest is “America Dissected,” the joint project of Crooked Media and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and activist. El-Sayed’s podcast captures the interconnectedness of health and politics — as he will tell you, the two fields cannot be separated from each other. We have to recognize this connectedness in order to advance politically.

El-Sayed draws from his personal experiences in politics and public health, which includes serving as Health Commissioner for the City of Detroit, a candidate for Governor of Michigan and professor at Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology. The intersection of health and politics is clear in almost every medical issue, including the prices of prescription drugs — the topic of El-Sayed’s third podcast episode. The example El-Sayed uses is Sovaldi, a medicine used to treat hepatitis C. When Gilead, an American pharmaceutical company, released Sovaldi in 2013, it was clear that the drug was much more effective than past treatments.

Capitalizing on this, and knowing that people needed the treatment to survive, Gilead released Sovaldi at the price of $84,000 for a 12-week treatment. The majority of people who needed the drug could not afford it, even if they had health insurance. American drug prices are some of the highest, and unlike every other developed country, the U.S. government does not regulate or negotiate drug prices. The United States has the science to create effective treatments, but the reluctance of our government to regulate prices has made prescription drugs unavailable to people who need them.

Another pressing issue in our country is government inaction against the anti-vaccination movement. Most notably, the anti-vaccination movement has fueled the global resurgence in measles, by leading the push for philosophical exemptions from vaccine requirements. This dangerous movement has made the measles vaccine less effective, as it lowers herd immunity, which only protects a group if most people in the group are vaccinated.

The measles vaccine is 97% effective, but as more people refuse to vaccinate themselves and/or their children, the risk of the disease spreading increases. The anti-vaccination movement itself was born out of irrational fears — such as the idea that vaccines cause autism — and has continued to be based in inaccurate statistics ever since. A deadly disease that was once eradicated is being brought back to life through a misinformed movement as the government stands back and watches.

There are currently 15 states that allow “philosophical exemptions for those who object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs.” By letting people refuse to vaccinate their kids without a sound reason, these state governments are impeding the effectiveness of vaccines — and increasing the chance that the rest of us get sick.

As El-Sayed puts it, the way “misinformation is mixed with politics” has caused yet another example of government affecting health. By coming to understand the politics behind the limited effectiveness of vaccines, we can work to better eradicate diseases by correcting misinformation within the anti-vaccination community and, more importantly, push the government to have stricter laws requiring children to get vaccinated.

Perhaps the most urgent matter between health and politics is health care — specifically, who should administer our health insurance and what exactly it should cover. In the most recent Democratic debate, health care was discussed more than any other issue, taking up 21% of the three-hour event.

This makes sense, considering the president has a lot of power over the U.S. health care system, from altering public health programs’ budgets to reforming our national health insurance system. While Donald Trump has been focused on repealing the Affordable Care Act, most Democrats running support Medicare for All, or some form of it. Regardless of your political beliefs, our government and presidential election can have drastic effects on your health care, and subsequently, your wellbeing.

Whether it’s vaccines, medicine or health insurance, the intersection of health and politics is prominent in many of the health issues in our country. “America Dissected” is an urgent reminder that in order to overcome the issues our nation is facing, from high drug prices to unworkable health care, we need to acknowledge this intersectionality and learn how to move beyond it.