Broder et al. recently published an article in EMBO reports about new cures for the health problems of the Third World. The subtitle was even more informative: the application of genomics to the diseases plaguing the developing world may have huge medical and economic benefits for those countries and might even prevent armed conflict.
This is how we scientists are: candid! In summary, the authors of the above‐mentioned article predict that genomics will finally solve some of the major problems afflicting the so‐called ‘Third World countries’—from infectious diseases to social unrest—and put their economies on the right track… to what? Among the diseases listed as examples are many so‐called ‘tropical diseases’, as well as HIV/AIDS. The authors correctly point out that research on tropical parasites, such as hookworm, has so far been for the benefit of patients of the developed world, to control specific diseases of these countries such as stroke. This is a very pertinent demonstration of the new trends in the geopolitics of disease research.
As one reads the article, one cannot help but reflect on several statements that depict the mentality of us, scientists of western culture and capitalism: the positivistic view of science, the messianic attitude of the developed world and the pressure of capital gains to keep tightening the rope around the neck of those countries we want to save. We, supposedly ‘neutral’ scientists, are here to help the dream come true.
Genomics is new, yes, but what is not new is the discourse. The same statements have been made before with other scientific breakthroughs, such as penicillin, monoclonal antibodies, synthetic peptides and genetic engineering. Yes, we have the blueprints of several important organisms, but they are still in a coded form. It is therefore necessary to wait for the arrival of proteomics—and so the dream of new cures must be postponed for another 10 or more years. In the meantime, another highly important player in solving our problems, ‘Education for All’, as was discussed at the United Nations Conferences in Jomtien, Thailand, and again in Dakar, Senegal, is also being postponed for 15 more years.
But let us be positive and assume that the solution to malaria and leishmaniasis will be with us here in Colombia in the next year. One can wonder who will be vaccinated first: those working in the coffee‐growing farms, or the guerillas and paramilitaries? Since this is a matter of market forces, and since heroin and cocaine sell better than coffee and bananas, amapola and coca dealers will eventually be healthier than coffee and banana growers—which they already are.
And what about the health of people in the developed countries, whose major problems seem to be stroke, obesity, erectile disfunction, etc.? Their economic health allows for a diet rich in fat and proteins from animals fed on plenty of cereals—eight pounds of quality cereal are needed to produce one pound of meat. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, children die of hunger and disease with no cereals to eat. Still, the authors of the article are there to remind us of the report of General Slim, that without malaria it would be far easier to perform military actions in the south.
- Copyright © 2002 European Molecular Biology Organization
Jorge E. Ossa is Professor Emeritus from the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia.