Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis

I’ve been taking a lot of classes on health in the past couple years. The focus has primarily been on how environmental factors result in decreases in health (ie: air pollution and asthma). There are a lot of ways that environmental degradation is leading to super serious health risks but this semester I’m learning about something else entirely, but equally as serious: infectious disease. I write about it today because the World Health Organization just released this document on TB drug-resistance. I think we all, in general, need to be more aware of global infectious diseases.

What I’ve found interesting is that ever since I started taking this class I’ve become so much more aware of infectious disease news popping up… like all these stories on Wired about TB in India and on drug-resistant TB, which was just posted today. It’s really important to be aware that this is happening – so I urge everyone to go and read that article and the related ones. Anti-biotic resistance in general is really quite scary.

While I’m primarily interested in infectious disease spread in relation to complexity science and chaos the social factors surrounding infectious disease are really interesting to think about (and ultimately a part of complexity science in this context). Yesterday in class we talked about SARS and how Singapore eradicated the disease within 3 months, which is super fast. But they did this by injecting fear in the citizens, forcing people to be quarantined (and some say they did this very discriminatory…forcing the poor while having the rich do voluntary quarantine, but there are justifiable reasons for that… but there is some systemic racism going on there that should be examined), putting cameras into people’s homes and locking down hospitals. How much do the ends justify the means in the case of disease? My gut reaction at first was that personal freedom needs to remain a priority, but now – thinking about how bad these situations can get my reaction is that the population needs to be controlled at all costs… but that can certainly result in some serious problems, too.

I think the scariest thing is the development of anti-biotic resistant strains of disease, like what we’re currently seeing in TB. The really difficult thing about TB drug-resistance is that it can’t be solved without major investment into health care for monitoring, distribution, education and for the drug itself. Too many of these serious health issues aren’t being approached in an effective way because of inherent issues within a neoliberal and inequitable world. When epidemics break out it seems to almost always the poor who are end up bearing the brunt of the problem (but I may think that simply based on the context of the class I’m in which might just focus on this issue – but from doing additional reading it doesn’t seem that far off base). Even just think about the movie Contagion and all the ethical issues that arise there – people getting preferential treatment for vaccines, entire villages with children being given fake vaccines and entire cities being quarantined not allowing anyone to leave. Its a great movie.

Speaking of ethics and disease/biology… I just started reading The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. It has been held up on a pedestal in my program as a prime example of how unethical scientists are. I’ve only read the first chapter, but I think I see where they are coming from. The point of the book is to tell the story of the women Henrietta Lacks whose cells grow at a rapid rate (they are immortal cells call HeLa) and are thus used for various things in biology (vaccines, research for cancer and AIDs…etc). The controversy is in the fact that the tissue sample was taken from Henrietta without her knowing or consent because she was a black woman in the states in the 50’s. Additionally, even though her cells resulted in a lot of research and advances in science she was never given any credit (until recently) and her family was never given any compensation (one girl in the book states that its strange that so many other people are benefiting from her mother’s cells while she can’t afford health care for her children). I’m definitely sympathetic to the issue and think the family should be given something (but I think society should be equal entirely and no one should be poor like this and not able to afford basic health care for their children)… but it also raises interesting questions about who the cells really belong to, ethics researchers should think about…etc. As someone doing research I would hope that those doing research and end up benefiting from it give a portion of that benefit to their research subjects (especially if they benefit monetarily). The boyfriend and I had an hour long debate about all this… it’s a really great book that is really worth a read.

Image Cred: The Science Creative Quarterly 

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Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish

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