Stern: Modern medicine

The past half-century has seen significant scientific achievements and drastic improvements in health care. Many cancers can now be cured through chemotherapy; we’ve mapped the human genome; we can transplant organs and prevent many illnesses such as measles and rubella with a single injection. Smallpox has essentially been eradicated and polio is getting close.

In times of war, we are better able to get wounded soldiers out of harm’s way, better able to stabilize them and, thanks to new plastic surgery techniques, better able to care for their wounds. In 1950, the birth control pill wasn’t licensed; now, we have more than 20 types, not to mention Plan B. We’ve even got social media for health: websites like WebMD offer guidance, preventative medicine, and community support and discussion, for almost every known illness (and a few we didn’t know, as well).

To be sure, these accomplishments are, by and large, a good thing. But even as we celebrate them and push to discover new cures and new therapies and to make access to them universal, we must keep mind that they have indirect effects and that, at times, while technology seems a panacea, it actually just masks another problem.

For instance, we now have both the papanicolau test (PAP smear) and vaccines that protect against the human papillomavirus and often, in turn, more serious diseases like cervical cancer. Still, in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control reported that, after years of improvement, rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. Admittedly HPV is down — Chlamydia and syphilis are the major contributors — but it seems the generation growing up with the convenience of readily accessible birth control has also been less careful when it comes to sexual health.

The development of vaccines and effective immunization campaigns, have had a significant impact on health worldwide, especially when it comes to children. Just in the past decade, there have been significant breakthroughs like the rotavirus vaccine, which has prevented thousands of hospitalizations from childhood diarrhea. At the same time, however, while many infectious diseases no longer threaten us on a daily basis, the knowledge we’ve gained to get to this point has also made possible the threat of chemical and biological warfare, including the use of smallpox. Despite repeated admonitions from the World Health Organization, neither the U.S. nor Russia seems willing to give up the last of their stocks.

In addition, elimination of certain diseases has paved the way for others, and, unfortunately it is the most vulnerable populations that are suffering. Just two weeks ago, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, reported that monkey pox is on the rise in Africa, which they largely blame on the end of vaccinations against small pox. In addition, in the wake of more comfortable lifestyles we are now seeing obesity rates as well as their attendant chronic diseases, such as diabetes, begin to rise.

This is not to say we that we shouldn’t keep striving to end disease. Indeed, even the lead researcher on the UCLA study, Anne Rimoin, called the eradication of smallpox “one of the greatest achievements known to man.” But even “greatest achievements,” have their consequences. And only by anticipating them can we begin to prevent them. In the case of monkey pox, it would have taken a bit more surveillance, according to Rimoin.

Similarly, as helpful as it seems to type in all your symptoms and have WebMD list off your potential ailments, we must recognize that with this increased public awareness could also come the problem of more frequent self-diagnosis, potential hypochondriac symptoms and in the worst cases, self-medication. It could also cause even higher screening rates for illnesses such as Attention Deficit Disorder, and even many types allergies — something that has already caused some experts to dismiss the increase in diagnoses to “detection bias” rather than an actual increase.

In addition, we would do well to remember that technology has the potential to create great ethical quandaries. Pregnancy prevention and family planning advancements have caused unrest regarding the use of fetal testing. Tests developed for defects in babies including for Spina Bifida and Down’s Syndrome. But they also open the door to allowing parents to terminate a pregnancy based on this information, which could be something as simple as gender.

Thus, while these drawbacks to medical advancements are no reason to diminish the commendation of scientists or their drive to make further improvements, Americans should still be wary of the problems that they present. We should remember that with every resource comes the potential of abuse, and put energy into utilizing the tools we are so lucky to have for those who need it — to abide by the words of Hippocrates, the Western father of medicine: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”

Comments

  • theantiyale

    Thought provoking piece.
    We go in circles: Devising new medical remedies while airplanes transport first HIV, then swine flu, and now bedbugs around the world, delivering them to our doorstep, conveniently, in only a matter of hours, several times a day, every day of the week.
    Makes sense.

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