Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Look up versus look down

Take a look at this video if you haven't seen it yet (or you could just skip and cut to the text below it).

The video is a poetic piece extolling the virtues of looking up at life and participating in it more rather than looking down at our little smartphones all the time. Its quite impressive really and it is proving to be quite popular on youtube (available ironically on the same devices that we are told should be left home). 

The video's message has been widely praised although there have been some angry posts about it. I guess we could say that the video is sort of self contradicting as it is now the one of the hottest trending topics in social media circles. The same system that it tells us to look away from. And just like that, here comes a video response/parody titled "Look Down" by YouTuber Spencer Owen and Alex Osipczak, was posted on YouTube on May 9.

When I see these videos, they remind me of what I experienced during our class' recent community medicine rotation; my group was assigned to a place called 'Kitomondo', a village located around 60km south of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On reaching the place, we discovered to our horror that the dispensary where we would be staying for a week had only a single power socket connected to one solar panel. That one socket had to power all our modern gadgets (with voltage well below the 240V requirement) in order for us to do our course work and write our reports, not to mention study for the course exam next week.

On top of that, we also discovered that getting a decent signal for our phones was a little like a game of easter egg hunt; find the best spot for the bars to appear. Enough for a chatting or smsing but not enough for data intensive services like plain old surfing, facebook or even whatsapp. The place was like a modern technological desert!

This forced us to engage in an unusual amount of small talk, casual discussions and board/card games. Honestly, I don't remember ever having that many chess matches with other students! In contrast, life went back to normal once we moved on to other locations with better connectivity; each one to his own screen.

So what does that all mean? I sincerely think that social media and IT technology has revolutionised our lives but I also sincerely think we can make better gadgets that will not consume whatever is left of our social lives in the 'meatspace' aka the real world. If we can't then the video will stand as a prophetic warning to the modern world.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Humanity's traitors

After a long hiatus, here we go again!

Life is delicate, that much is made clear to me everyday I go to see the children and newborns in the wards at hospital during rounds. Death hangs like a shadow in such places, always ready to pounce when the time is opportune. Modern medicine has helped us to reach previously unimaginable levels of improved existence and survival odds. Such hope abounds in plenty that it should be regarded as a treachery to humanity to withhold such hope if it is/can be made available to all.

Similar sentiments must have been going through Dr. Salk's mind when he decided to give away his poliovirus vaccine in 1955. The results were dramatic; annual reported cases fell by almost 30,000 in a span of just 4 years in the US. A real human triumph, one that has continued to be repeated around the world with beautiful results. The rate of vaccination was helped considerably by the introduction of easier to administer oral polio vaccine (developed separately by Albert Sabin) in 1961.

Armed with the vaccine and the desire to replicate the successful eradication of the smallpox virus in 1979, the world set 2000 as the deadline for global eradication of the poliovirus. Now it (i.e. the deadline) is 2018. Why is it taking us more time than it took to eradicate the smallpox virus (which was eliminated in just 15 years)?
Countries in red are where the disease is endemic i.e. where
a large number of new cases appear annually. Note blue denotes places
with vaccine-derived virii are circulating in the population
and green denotes areas with imported virii (Commons, 2013)
Already we see a pattern unfolding before our eyes in the map above. The global eradication effort is being frustrated by circumstances in 3 countries; Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All three have one thing in common; they are all battling religiously inspired groups who keep attacking health workers who come to vaccinate children. And its not helping the situation on the ground. Countries that were recently declared free of the disease like China and Syria now have to battle the virus once again as it spills over from endemic neighbours.

If Salk were around, I am sure he would agree with me when I say that these Islamist groups are directly threatening humanity's existence. By this I mean a level on par with a killer asteroid slamming into the earth and killing us all kind of threat. Sure, poliovirus won't push us to extinction if it were to reemerge as a global threat once again but my point is that it would add a burden that is absolutely unnecessary for everyone in the world. especially the children who can develop motor paralysis from infections. We're talking children being denied a decent life. You can't build a  more perfect human civilisation on cripples. Yet that is apparently exactly what Nigeria's Boko haram ('western education is bad' in the local language) and the Taliban want; a Shariah compliant nation of ignorant cripples! How much more pathetic can you really get?

Before I end this angry piece, let me remind those of you who keep mentioning the Bin Laden-vaccine undercover fiasco as a reason for the eradication program's troubles in Pakistan that there were plenty of killings made even before that. We are dealing with traitors of humanity here, pure and simple. Politics has no place when it comes to a child getting his or her vaccine. 

To date, I have not seen a single polio case in the ward I'm attached to or during community medicine rotations. I don't want to ever have to deal with it for real. I want it to become like smallpox today; a distant nightmare that's over forever.