Tuesday, November 08, 2005

and I can't unravel riddles, problems, and puns

Some times, I wish things were as simple as cause and effect, but, then again, were it that simple, what fun would science, or life, really be? The crazy thing is, even if you eliminate the complexities of science itself, there are sociological & ethical issues that add another layer of wha? to a lot of things.

Consider rotavirus, a common cause of viral gastroenteritis in infants and children. Now, though this is a pretty icky virus that certainly wreaks havoc on a little one's intestinal tract, it only causes an average of 100 deaths per year in the US. It causes a lot more fatalities in developing countries.

You might be tempted to write that off to the spread of the virus being more common in developing countries. Not true, actually. It's been shown that sanitary conditions have no impact on rotavirus incidence. So, why does the virus cause so many more deaths in developing countries? In the US, we have Pedialyte, and good healthcare, so that it's highly unusual for a child to die of dehydration. In these developing countries, more often than not, it's the inability to effectively treat infected individuals that leads to mortality.

Two drug companies (Merck & GSK) have been developing vaccines for rotavirus. Even though it causes few deaths in the US, we live in a culture of fear. So, why not have a vaccine for it? Here's what troubles me about this- both of these trials had to enroll greater than 50,000 patients in it. What this says to me is that these vaccines are going to be prohibitively expensive. Not to your average pre-schooler in the US, but definitely to your average kid in Southeast Asia. That means the vaccine will go to the people least in need of it, in a sense. I can't help wishing that we could somehow have used the money and research efforts that were spent in developing the vaccine to actually improve healthcare aid in the developing world. I know it does not work that way. It's not like these drug companies are going to go throw money at increasing availability of Pedialyte in impoverished areas of India. But I can't help wishing the money could have gone there.

On the other hand, some times our hypersensitivity to fear has an unexpected side benefit. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, no one spent much money or manpower looking into what was going on with Marburg or Ebola virus, unless they were researching a role in some crappy Hollywood alarmist film. These are extremely nasty viruses, that causes hemorrhagic fevers, and have mortality rates that make all the avian flu overestimations look like chump change. However, they tend to sweep through at a rapid rate, clearing out a whole village, and then disappear from the clinical radar. They don't really have pandemic potential, and they tend to affect poor communities in Africa.

However, in the 2000s, with heightened concerns about biowarfare and bioterrorism, all of a sudden, the government became more interested in these deadly viruses. Thanks to all the hype, money is being spent on developing vaccines to Marburg and Ebola. Even though it may be that these vaccines also may not get in the hands of those who really need it, I am holding out hope. Maybe these vaccines, that were developed out of fear, will serve to eradicate this life-threatening virus all over the world. Perhaps that is too much to hope though.

In the usual, unrelated news, the TO saga continues. Personally, I'm guessing Parcells is going to pony up for him. Which is fine, since I've never much cared for the Cowboys. Of course, I can't talk too much smack since Peyton Manning's crew soundly trounced the Pats last night. That hurt.

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