Medicine and modern life

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Medicine and modern life

Can medical progress keep up with modern life? Naomi Elster asks.


Doctor and patient (480–470 BC). (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011). under a Creative Commons Licence)

The Hippocratic Oath started about 400 BCE. It reminds us how modern medicine is built on ancient knowledge. And also that we got our medicine, learning and democracy from Greece - so maybe we should cancel their financial debt.

Can all of the medical miracles by our ancestors keep up with our fast modern lives? Maybe it’s time to slow down and think if we in the West have stopped respecting medicine?

I don’t know who first said ‘wonder drug of the 20th century’, but many pharmaceutical companies said this about many medications: statins that lower cholesterol, Prozac the anti-depressant, and Viagra (the failed heart drug which became a success when scientists started wondering why the men didn’t want to give the pills back after the trial).

The original ‘wonder drug of the 20th century’ was penicillin. This is in a class of antibiotics called beta-lactams. Beta-lactams kill bacteria by attacking the cell walls around them that protect them. Bacterial cells are so different from ours, so antibiotics can kill bacteria we don’t want and not harm us. This was great until the development of antibiotic resistance. Some people have said this is ‘as big a threat as terrorism’.

Bacteria live a short live and evolve very quickly. If just a few bacteria in a large population learn to survive an antibiotic, soon, many more will adapt in the same way. And suddenly we have ‘superbugs’ like MRSA, that spread very quickly around our hospitals.

There is more antibiotic resistance now partly because bacteria can quickly adapt and change in stressful conditions. But this resistance was mainly started by society: because of industrial farming. Beef farmers wanted more profit and wanted to stop disease in their animals. So they gave their animals antibiotics – but not enough to kill a lot of bacteria. And, because they were cheap and didn’t have many side effects, far too many antibiotics were used for decades. People take them for if a viral infection (antibiotics useless) leads to a bacterial one (antibiotics needed), so they don’t need to worry.

‘Germ theory’, the idea that diseases are caused by micro-organisms and we can stop them if we keep clean, was a very important stage in human civilization. But are we living too cleanly? We get allergies when our immune system thinks something like pollen is a threat and has a reaction. When we live inside houses, we don’t experience the ‘good bacteria’ so much eg. the bacteria that train our immune system to work properly. This might increase allergies.

We have comfortable lives – very different from some of the terrible diseases our ancestors could get, which people in less-developed countries can still get. I think we’ve forgotten why we invented vaccines and how they changed our world.

In the late 1990s, one scientific study, which was not true, said there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. Scientists soon showed that this was not true, but people are still afraid, even though there is no evidence of any bad effects of the MMR vaccine, or a link to autism. This partly because of our media and social media - Playboy models who are against vaccines can speak as much as medical experts who know the benefits of vaccines.

A Canadian father wrote a powerful open letter when he was afraid his baby daughter had got measles from other babies who hadn’t had vaccinations. ‘Vaccination is not a choice: it is a social responsibility… your selfishness has put a whole new generation of children at risk to get diseases that we haven’t had for more than 100 years.’ Measles has killed children in Britain, and in June this year, a Spanish child died from diphtheria, a very serious disease that Spain hadn't had for 28 years. It was not surprising that the 6-year-old’s parents felt the anti-vaccination movement had tricked them.

When my grandparents were ill they did not want to ‘bother the doctor’, and in the village where I grew up, the older generation respected doctors a lot. This is not good, but perhaps it would be good for us all to respect doctors a bit more –they spend years studying health and disease. Last year I presented research – years of hard work by a team of experienced, highly trained scientists – and a member of the public shouted ‘I know you think you’re a researcher but I’m a researcher, same as you.’ He said that the doctors and scientists at the event were wasting our time - the Ancient Aztecs often cured themselves of cancer with cannabis. This man’s ‘research’, he said, was a few hours on the internet, and because of what he said, people with cancer and cancer survivors didn’t get the opportunity to speak with us.

He left. But I wanted to ask him if the best model for modern healthcare really was the Aztecs - they practised cannibalism (eating people) and human sacrifice and had a low life expectancy.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).