Did you know that about 30,000 individuals die every day from curable diseases? Some evils are entirely dreadful because they are not preventable; there is little we can do in the face of a hurricane or tsunami. But it is even more tragic when we ignore preventable human suffering.
Yesterday, I took my UCLA Hillel students to volunteer at the Refuot community medicine bank in Buenos Aires, Argentina, funded by the Fundación Tzedaká. Since 1999, Refuot has distributed around 580,000 medicines to more than 12,000 Jews and non-Jews through 70 Jewish centers in Argentina. I left the medicine bank inspired by their heroic work and yet deeply troubled by how much more work there is to do to improve medicine access worldwide.
One story among thousands is that of Juan Granovsky. He was born in 1937, and worked for decades in a fumigation and disinfection company. He receives about $90 a month in retirement benefits, but it is not enough to cover the cost of the medicines he now needs. He suffers from diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, and has had six heart bypass operations. Granovsky typifies the patient who would have no access to medication without the help of the medicine bank. Where would Juan turn if the medicine bank wasn’t here for him?
Usually these needed medicines are donated from pharmaceutical laboratories, but if someone is in need of another medicine, the medicine bank purchases it after searching for the best drug prices on the market. The Argentinian government covers some HIV and cancer treatments, but the community medicine bank is needed to treat patients with other diseases such as Parkinson’s, Crohn’s, and diabetes that the government is not equipped to address. All medicines are packaged and then sent to hospitals and health professionals, where they are dispensed to patients.
The idea that we are responsible to ensure that others have access to medicines is not a new one. The great Talmudic sage Rav Huna set the model for the importance of granting others access to the drugs they need. “Whenever he discovered some [new] medicine he would fill a water jug with it and suspend it above the doorstep and proclaim, ‘Whosoever desires it let him come and take of it’” (Ta’anit 20b). Rav Huna understood the loss of human dignity felt when an individual is unable to meet personal health needs and those of loved ones. Further a society based on intellectual, moral, and spiritual values cannot thrive if all must be consumed with their basic physical survival needs.
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, the great 20th century Jewish legal authority taught that Jewish law demands that every community must play a crucial role in granting access to medicine: “When poor people are ill and who cannot afford medical expenses, the community sends them a doctor to visit them, and the medicine is paid for by the communal fund” (Tzitz Eliezer 5:4).
The most strategic way to address sickness is by improving exercise, nutrition, lifestyle, and preventive care. But where health counseling, governmental funding, and education are unavailable or insufficient, medicines are especially crucial. We should consider helping to financially support Refuot, establishing more amazing community medicine banks, and advocating pharmaceutical companies to donate more medicines to those in need worldwide.
Pharmaceutical companies must do more to provide universal access and government must provide tax incentives that help companies to do so. Most importantly, like Refuot, we all can and must support local and foreign organizations ensuring the just distribution of drugs to those who need them.
There are few situations in life as terrifying as a life-threatening disease without access to the necessary medicines. How can we let innocent individuals die around the world when a pill that costs less than one cent to produce can save their lives? G-d commands us to take care of the poor, the starving and the sick and with 30,000 dying every day of curable diseases we don’t have much time to delay.
Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for order on Amazon. He was named one of the Top 50 Rabbis in the 2012 list by Newsweek and The Daily Best.