Premature deaths in the United States are plummeting.
While “deaths of despair” — think opioid overdoses, alcohol abuse and suicide — are on the rise, the rate of premature deaths from diseases like lung cancer, diabetes and non-Hodgkin lymphoma have declined over the last quarter-century, according to a new Journal of the American Medical Association report.
The reason? Advances in medicine. Unfortunately, policymakers in Washington seem keen on undermining the incentives needed to develop breakthrough medicines.
Perhaps the most remarkable gains can be found among certain cancer patients. According to the JAMA report, age-adjusted death rates from lung cancer dropped 24 percent between 1990 and 2016. For colon cancer, the decrease is nearly 30 percent. And for breast cancer, more than 32 percent.
Early detection has played a major role in these improvements. But advances in treatment are mostly to thank. They account for 73 percent of the recent rise in cancer survival rates. Since 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 110 new oncology drugs or new cancer-fighting applications for existing medicines.
Or look at ischemic heart disease. The condition is still the leading cause of premature death among Americans. But the JAMA study estimates that the number of “years of life lost” from this condition declined by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2016.
Once again, a great deal of that progress can be traced to new medicines, particularly a class of drugs known as statins. Statins reduced the risk of death from coronary heart disease in men by 28 percent, according to one recent study that looked at patients over the course of two decades.
Now, many of these statins are available generically and will provide cardiovascular disease treatment for generations to come.
Finally, consider HIV/AIDS. In 1995, the disease was the top killer of Americans ages 25 to 44. Thanks to advances in antiretroviral therapy, however, many patients diagnosed today can live nearly as long as a person without the disease.
Despite these hopeful trends, the challenges posed by chronic illness remain daunting. Ischemic heart disease, lung cancer and colon cancer are still among the top five causes of early death in the United States. Premature death from complications with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia also are on the rise.
Overcoming these public health crises will require a new generation of innovative treatments.
Luckily, researchers are on track to deliver. There are more than 200 new medicines for heart disease and stroke currently under development. The pipeline for cancer treatments includes more than 800 potential drugs, and another 85 potential treatments of Alzheimer’s.
After many resources and investments, some of these therapies will make it to market and provide substantial patient benefit toward eradicating terrible diseases.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the next medical breakthrough is just around the corner. That’s why policies that deter research into new treatments are so dangerous.
Some leaders have started calling for the government to regulate prices. But without the ability to set their own prices, researchers might decide that the financial risks involved in developing new medicines are too high to bear.
It takes $2.6 billion on average and around 10 to 15 years to create just one commercially available drug. What makes this massive upfront cost acceptable to drug firms and their investors is the expectation that, should a medicine become successful, they can recoup at least some of this investment.
If the government is put in charge of pricing drugs, however, investing in pharmaceutical research would become an even riskier endeavor. Investors would flee to safer industries. Funding for much-needed medical advances would dry up.
In other words, the next medical breakthrough — whether it’s a cure for cancer, diabetes or even Alzheimer’s — could be obstructed by short-sighted political rationale. This would deprive millions of people access to life-saving and life-enhancing therapies for decades to come.
America has made encouraging progress in battling the most serious public health threats of the last few decades. It owes much of those gains to powerful new treatments that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Given the severity of the public-health challenges still facing our country, now is no time to undermine the source of that innovation with misguided government policies.
Sandip Shah is the founder and president of Market Access Solutions, where he develops strategies to optimize patient access to life-changing therapies.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.