Governments waste more money on an old idea for treatment

In this country, we spend ridiculous amounts of money developing new vaccines that don’t seem to have any real scientific standards. Case in point, the flu vaccine and the HPV vaccines. Even older, standby vaccines–like the mumps vaccine–don’t always seem to protect patients as promoted.

I recently came across a misguided article about a Saudi drug company’s plan to make new halal versions of the meningitis, hepatitis and meningococcal vaccines.

In Arabic, the word halal means “permitted” or “lawful.” It’s an Islamic dietary guideline that says you shouldn’t take anything into the body that’s been contaminated by “impurities.” Similar to the Jewish kosher standards, this practice generally helps to ensure good, high-quality foods since the manufacturers have to answer to a “higher authority” than the FDA or USDA, for example.

Now, let’s get back to the “new” halal vaccines. The article I came across implied this is the first time halal vaccines would be available. And that’s simply untrue.

In the 1990s, a clever Washington beltway businessman came up with the idea that we needed to develop halal vaccines for the U.S. military to use and distribute throughout the Middle East. These new vaccines would conform with Islamic religious guidelines.

Let’s put aside all the other problems with vaccines I’ve cited over the years for a moment. I never understood what a halal vaccine would be in terms of the real medical science. And the military experts who wanted these expensive, new vaccines didn’t seem to know much about the medical science of vaccines either.

But they sure knew their military history. They all remembered the Sepoy Mutiny and the Rebellion in India in 1857.

The British Army often conscripted Hindu and Muslim ground soldiers to fight their wars in India. (They were always led by British officers!) But during these rebellions in India, the Muslim soldiers refused to handle bullets packed in pork fat (lard) because of religious reasons. And the Hindu soldiers refused to handle bullets packed in beef fat (tallow).

So, the British had no way to “chicken out” of this bloody rebellion. They had to fight for themselves–and for their lives. Of course, as a result, the British Empire suffered its biggest worldwide defeat since the American Revolution.

This historical justification must have made sense to someone in Congress. The U.S. government did not want a repeat of rebellion and one of the biggest western military disasters in history. (But, of course, it got one anyway.)

They voted all kinds of new deficit spending to develop and purchase these vaccines. I guess since thousands of U.S. troops were heading to the Afghanistan and Iraq, they thought halal vaccines could help provide civilian “pacification” to the various tribes on the ground.

The fruits of the new vaccines were abundant. For a few years, I attended lavish Christmas parties (apparently not against the rules) hosted by the manufacturer of the new vaccines. (Disclosure: I was there only as the escort of my spouse, who is a civilian expert on tribal organization in the Middle East.)

So, the three “new” halal vaccines produced by that Saudi lab really aren’t new at all. It’s just another scheme to take an “old” treatment and make it “new” again, so a whole new set of patients will buy into it. Where have we seen that before?

And that’s even assuming the whole idea has any legitimacy in the first place.