Government Services


(This 1251st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 15, 2015.)


We hear much today about government waste. A Google search on this topic turned up over 33 million sites. What we rarely hear, however, are comments about government achievements. That there may have been at least a few is attested to by a search on that subject: it turned up 148 million sites.


Of course there is government waste and bureaucratic inefficiency just as there is in private industry. Surely we should seek to identify and address these shortcomings, but it is very important that we not throw out the baby with the bathwater.


Consider two examples of what I mean by this.


Thalidomide was a widely distributed tranquilizer developed in the 1950s by a German pharmaceutical company. In the United States, however, one of the Food and Drug Administration's drug examiners, Frances Oldham Kelsey, would not accept the company's claims and refused to approve the drug for use. You can just imagine the pressures brought to bear on her to give that approval for a drug accepted by forty foreign countries even including Canada.


But Kelsey was proved right. Before the drug was finally banned, worldwide over 10,000 children were born with missing arms and legs.


*   *   *


The screw-worm is the larva of a fly that is twice as big as a house fly. The adult lays hundreds of eggs on wounds of warm-blooded animals, particularly livestock and among wildlife frequently deer. In about twelve hours the eggs hatch into the screw-worm maggot which feeds on the injury and grows to maturity in about five days. It is at this time that its name is acquired: it burrows head down into the flesh and the rings around its body give it the appearance of a half-drilled carpenter's screw.


When fully grown the larva drops to the ground where it pupates into an adult fly, the entire life cycle taking just three weeks.


Infested wounds develop a disgusting smell, drawing other flies. According to E. F. Knipling, "Because of the recurved spines and their aggregating behavior in the wounds, the infested animals cannot readily dislodge the larvae by licking or biting. Animals are literally eaten alive. In areas of high fly densities, infested animals not found are virtually doomed for a slow traumatic death."


Leland Howard tells us that the fly "also frequently attacks man. The most common cases are those where the fly has laid its eggs in the nostrils." There it destroys the soft tissues of the palate and Howard adds, "Fatal cases in men are not rare."


Clearly the screw-worm is not an attractive insect. Nor was it an inexpensive pest. In the 1930s over a million cases of infestation were reported each year and in 1974 Gulf state losses alone were estimated at $200 million. Fortunately the screw-worm does not tolerate cold and its population reservoirs remained along the southern United States border. Northern infestations occurred only when infected livestock were transported here. With global warming, of course, that picture might be changing.


Now enter government entomological researchers. In the 1970s they raised billions of male flies, sterilized them by irradiation and released them through the southern states and Mexico. These flies overwhelmed the wild population and the females they inseminated produced eggs that did not hatch. The result: within ten years the pest was virtually stamped out in both countries and billions of agriculture dollars were saved.


The eradication program had many early detractors. But its final overwhelming success is perhaps best told by a cowboy who lived through the bad years. Joel Nelson's delightful doggerel includes the following:


Now usually gov'met programs are a minimal success

But the one that stopped the screwworm has dang shore passed the test.

Cause it pushed the critter southward and I hope he's there to stay.

Here's to the Mission Fly Lab and the U.S. D. of A.


Those are just two examples of the contribution of our federal government to our general welfare. Meanwhile in government-supported labs across the country, research not generally known to the public is addressing similar serious problems, many of them related to diseases, to our environment, to farming practices. Often the research will lead to dead ends, but I hope we are willing to support these serious endeavors.


Indeed we do need oversight of governmental operations at all levels, but I still fear that important programs like the ones I have described might be eliminated as the result of widely approved anti-government sound bites.-- Gerry Rising