Everyone has seen the large heads carved from stone on Easter Island. These heads are an architectural and engineering marvel - especially considering the stone used to carve them came from miles away on the island. The story behind the heads isn't a happy one, and it can tell us about what is happening to the United States, as Blastocystis infection spreads through the population.
Easter Island was home to a variety of tribes who believed that carving the heads, or Moia, would solve their physical problems. The tribes competed with each other for scarce resources on the island, and fought wars against each other as well. The heads had to be placed on the shore, but the stone for carving them was miles away. So the tribes cut down trees to use to roll the stone blocks to shore. When harvests failed, tribes went to war, and more trees were cut down to make more statues. That lead to deforestation and erosion, which lead to fewer resources, more wars, and the need to build more Moia. The tribes that made the Moia eventually drove themselves into extinction.
Blastocystis was a relatively rare infection in the United States until the mid-1990's, when infection rates skyrocketed. By 2000, almost 1 in 4 samples coming from California were testing positive for the infection. Unlike E-coli, salmonella, and some other foodborne infections, the disease does not go away after a few weeks, months, or years. Many of those who were infected in 2000 will be sick until the day they die unless they are treated. But there is currently no reliable treatment available in the US, and the NIH has opposed using any funds to identify such a treatment.
To understand what their opposition is, in their June 1, 2010 announcement, the NIH indicated that its primary mission is spending money to create employment at Universities and produce patents and new businesses. So like the tribes of Easter Island, the NIH believes that patents and businesses will keep the US population healthy. The NIH indirectly spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on Blastocystis infection, but it goes to physicians who start research groups that make up new names for the illness seen in Blastocystis patients. They call it microscopic colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut syndrome, dysbiosis, or inflammatory bowel disease. They then develop treatments that do not cure the disease, but rather have to be re-applied throughout the patient's life to control symptoms. They do not do any work to limit the vectors that are spreading the disease, so these patients can go on to infect others in the community.
Based on the numbers from developing countries, eventually about 50% of the US population will be infected with Blastocystis. At that time, 30-40% of the US population will have chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, and auto-immune diseases. Many will be unable to work, and will have to be supported by government aid or by their families. Many children who contract this will be unemployable for their entire lives. Seniors who contract the disease will incur astronomical medicare bills.
In fact, if their goal is to create employment at Universities, what the NIH is doing right now - refusing to spend any money to control or cure the infection. By letting the infection spread, the NIH will be able to justify higher budgets to Congress. The problem is that the money comes from an economy that that can't continue with this level of chronic illness. The US population has not seen this high of a level of protozoal infection in over a century. The only countries today with similar levels of infection have economies that provide a much lower standard of living for their population. They certainly don't spend $22 billion on health care research.
Unfortunately, like the tribes on Easter Island, the answer from the NIH is to spend more money. Build more Moia.
Perhaps the next tribe of people who inhabit this island will be wiser.