All posts by Claire A Chin Foo

AFRICA: A VICTIM OF THE BATTLE BETWEEN PRIMARY HEALTH CARE AND MAGIC BULLETS

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, at a time when many of today’s nations, especially Africa, were colonized by the major powers of Western Europe, Paul Ehrlich, a German physician and scientist, discovered that a certain chemical compound, Arsphenamine, effectively combatted spirillum spirochaetes bacteria, the subspecies of which caused syphilis. The treatment of syphilis, using this compound, that targeted only the specific bacteria causing the syphilis, and had few if any negative side effects, was, in short, a miracle. Ehrlich reasoned that if other medications could be created that “selectively” targeted specific disease causing organisms, with few side effects, it would be a “magische Kugel”—magic bullet.

In 1908, Paul Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine, for his contributions to immunology. As a direct result of Ehrlich’s “magic bullet” theory, scientists and physicians around the world began their own research and experiments to discover more and more magic bullet cures.

Various and thoughtful people, from around the world, have posed an important philosophical and moral question, “Should First World countries intervene in the politics, medical practices, and social structures of Third World countries, in any manner whatsoever, even if it is to save their lives?” After much reflection, I believe the correct answer is yes, for the following reason: lives matter—all lives matter.

I would like to expand on the definition of a magic bullet, defined, “as selectively targeting a specific disease, with few or no side effects;” and create a “financial” magic bullet that selectively targets specific health needs, in a positive way, with as little collateral damage as possible. And, once again, the “financial” magic bullet will be played out in the villages of Africa.

Although Measles, in the United States and Europe, is now virtually a disease of the past, measles has been increasing dangerously in many countries in West Africa, hit hard by the recent outbreak of Ebola. A Time’s article titled, Why West Africa Might Soon Have 100,000 More Measles Cases, talks about how the Ebola epidemic has caused a disastrous overwhelming of the Primary Health Care system in West Africa, leading to increased mortality and morbidity rates, due to Measles. The author then goes on about the eradication campaign that was set up to vaccinate all the children who were born during the Ebola epidemic, before expanding to older children and adults, who are more susceptible to dying from Measles, in order to prevent an even greater Measles epidemic, in the future.

Who lives, and who dies? Who decides? Who funds the Primary Health Care facilities? In the end, the decisions are obviously made by the First World countries.

Packard, in his chapter, Malaria Dreams: Postwar Visions of Health and Development in the Third World, explains how there has been a long reach of colonial medicine and how medical colonialism and imperial conquest set the stage to practice science and medicine, abroad—mostly, in Africa.

Looking at the medical history of Africa, since the time of Ehrlich, there have been many serious outbreaks of deadly diseases, in Africa—some of them eradicated by magic bullet cures, some of them tackled and overcome by the hard work performed by Primary Health Care doctors and nurses who have employed both magic bullet cures to eliminate small pox, prevent cholera, mitigate diarrhea, treat malaria, and a host of other remedies to assuage suffering and prevent deaths.

Returning to the “financial” magic bullet, how do we know which is more effective and efficient: funding Primary Health Care systems; funding research in hopes of developing another magic bullet cure; or, funding both? And, what are the possible unintended consequences? Because there will be collateral damage, and the outcry of unwanted intervention and colonialism. For example, during the Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands, in West Africa, before the First World countries, decided it might be in their own best interest to develop a magic bullet vaccine to protect themselves—of course, the vaccine had to first undergo clinical trials in a lab setting, before being guaranteed safe for use. And, of course, there has to be a controlled study—those who receive the vaccine (and live) and those who receive placebos (and die).

As mentioned in Determining Global Health, by Farmer et al., medical history is essential to understand and predict the intended and unintended consequences of different global health interventions, and many attributes of medicine and public health are due to the unintended consequences of globalization.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. To effectively treat diseases, does it make sense to go where the diseases exist? If there is resistance from the local population, what other methods could we use to eradicate these diseases?
  2. One or two hundred years from now, with all of the eradication campaigns and programs that are set up, do you think that most if not all diseases now existing in Africa will be eradicated? And why?

 

Course Readings:

Packard, Randall. “Malaria Dreams: Postwar Visions of Health and Development in the Third World.” Medical Anthropology . 17 (Sep 1997).: 279-296.

Paul Farmer, e. A. (2013). Reimagining Global Health An Introduction.

 

Outside Sources:

Kluger, Jeffrey. “Why West Africa Might Soon Have 100,000 More Measles Cases.” Time. Time, 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <http://time.com/3742361/ebola-measles-alliance/>.

“Paul Ehrlich – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 21 Oct 2015. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1908/ehrlich-bio.html>