Politically Popular Diseases - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Taxes & Spending

Politically Popular Diseases


The United States government spends billions of dollars every year on medical research. Well, that's cool, we all want to see diseases cured.

The National Institute of Health produced a report in 2012 detailing where the money was going. Sifting through this report, one finds that the biggest money is being spent as follows. Note the numbers are in millions of dollars. So for example, "5,448" means $5,448,000,000, or about five and a half billion dollars.

Table 1: Government Medical Research, by Disease, 2011

Disease Government Funding, Millions
Cancer 5,448
HIV/AIDS 3,059
Cardiovascular disease 2,049
Substance Abuse 1,623
Neurodegenerative 1,622
Diabetes 1,076
Eye disease 831
Liver disease 623
Kidney disease 557
Dental/oral 501
Alcoholism 452
Alzheimer's Disease 448
Depression 426
Contraception 415
Pneumonia & Influenza 382
Tobacco-related 362

Source: "Estimates of Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories (RCDC)", National Institute of Health, 2012

Note: This report is a little difficult to read, as it categorizes spending in many different ways. It groups spending by general disease, like "Cancer", and also by specific disease, like "Prostate Cancer", "Breast Cancer", etc. It also groups by demographic groups, like "Women's Health", and by procedural techniques, like "Genetic research". Thus, the same research money is reported multiple times. I got the above table by taking just the categorization by disease, and taking only the "highest level", e.g. "cancer" rather than the various specific types.

How does this relate to the prevalence or seriousness of each of these diseases? In general, I would think that we would want to devote the most resources to the diseases that cause the most suffering. While we don't want to abandon people who have a rare disease, it makes sense to spend more on the diseases that affect the most people or that due the most harm.

So I found some other statistics from the government listing causes of death. Here's every cause they listed that caused more than 1,000 deaths.

Table 2: Causes of Death, 2010

Disease Deaths
Cardiovascular disease 780,213
Cancer 574,743
Chronic lower respiratory diseases 138,080
Accidents 120,859
Alzheimer's disease 83,494
Diabetes mellitus 69,071
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis 50,476
Influenza and pneumonia 50,097
Suicide 38,364
Septicemia 34,812
Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis 31,903
Parkinson's disease 22,032
Pneumonitis 17,011
Homicide 16,259
Birth defect 9,673
HIV/AIDS 8,369
Viral hepatitis 7,564
Anemia 4,852
Gallbladder diseases 3,332
Peptic ulcer 2,977
Malnutrition 2,790
Complications of medical and surgical care 2,490
Hernia 1,832
Drug-related deaths* 40,393
Alcohol-related deaths* 25,692

Source: "National Vital Statistics Report (NVSR)", United States Centers for Disease Control, 2010, Table 10

* The last two rows, drug and alcohol deaths, include deaths in other categories.

Now let's compare these two tables. Let's match the amount spent on each disease with the number of deaths caused by that disease.

Some caveats: "Death" is not the only form of suffering. For example, few people die from eye disease, but some number go blind.

The data comes from different sources and was collected for different purposes, so the categories may not be strictly comparable. I've marked the particularly hazy connections with a "~" symbol. Numbers so marked should be taken as rough approximations.

Spending numbers are for 2011 while death statistics are for 2010. In each case these were the latest numbers I could find (as of February 2013). Both numbers are stable enough that this makes little difference, and in any case research is a long-term investment, so year-to-year variations are not particularly relevant anyway.

Table 3: Research Spending Per Death

Disease Government Funding, Millions Deaths Dollars/Death
Cancer 5,448 574,743 9,479
HIV/AIDS 3,059 8,369 365,516
Cardiovascular disease 2,049 780,213 2,626
Substance Abuse 1,623 40,393 40,180
Neurodegenerative 1,622 ?
Diabetes 1,076 69,071 15,578
Eye disease 831
Liver disease 623 ~31,903 ~19,527
Kidney disease 557 ~50,476 ~11,034
Dental/oral 501
Alcoholism 452 25,692 17,593
Alzheimer's Disease 448 83,494 5,366
Depression 426
Contraception 415
Pneumonia & Influenza 382 50,097 7,625
Tobacco-related 362 ~138,080 ~2,621

© 2014 by Jay Johansen


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