19 September 2010

Democracy and disease

I'm finally back at home. It's great to be back with my wife and kids. I have to admit that I was a  little nervous at first but things seem to be going very well. 

The solitude of the hospital probably did help my writing a little, but I am determined to keep this blog going now that I am home. It may be a little more difficult to write with my kids running around the house, but I hope this new normalcy will improve the stories that you see in this blog. 

Thank you for all your kind words on my discharge. I wish you all health and happiness. 

Let's start.

We are all rightfully outraged when we hear of people, especially kids, dying of totally preventable and curable diseases in third world countries. Illnesses such as measles, diarrhea, and pneumonia that don't kill our own children in developed nations, and malaria which is not even a concern for most of us, kills eleven million children annually. 

Most of the deaths are concentrated in a handful of countries. Just six countries account for half of worldwide deaths of children younger than five, and 42 countries for 90 percent of deaths.  India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia alone suffer 5.5 million child deaths a year. Altogether, about 41 percent of child deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and another 34 percent in South Asia.

The deaths stemming from these diseases are not a scientific or a financial problem. The science exists to stem these diseases and even the poorest countries could deal with the financial side if they were accountable to their own citizens in how and where money is spent. Simply put, these deaths stem from a lack of democracy in these countries. Of the six countries mentioned in the paragraph above not one ranks as a full democracy according to the Economist's Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index.

What do I mean by a lack of democracy? 
The governments of these nations don't care that their citizens die, the lives of the poor are cheap, AND because their own citizens are not in a position, due to the authouritarian nature of their countries' regimes or because of the the poverty inflicted on them, to change the situation. This is not some kind of highfalutin theory of democracy, this is reality.

What would happen in Canada or in the UK if children died because of diarrhea? Would parents allow it? No, and they would be in a position to force their governments' hands. Parents in authouritarian countries do not have this choice. They cannot demand that their governments act. You can! 

So what does this have to do with stem cells and spinal cord injury, or stem cells and multiple sclerosis, or stem cells and blindness? It's the same - a simple question of democracy. 

How can I say this? 

There are no real scientific or financial barriers to stem cell cures. Sure they may take some adjustments but they are here, or at least very very close. There has been progress with embryonic stem cell research, but also much more progress with adult stem cells, but as long as the debate stays focussed on the difference between these two kinds of stem cells, the longer that regular people will stay away from the discussion. Not because most people have a problem with one kind of stem cell over the other, but because the arguments sound too technical and scientific for regular people to involve themselves with. 

Our goal needs to change the stem cell debate from a scientific question to a democratic question.

Unlike those in countries which have no real democracy, people in the leading democracies don't need to remain silent over their wishes to see stem cell research and stem cell cures continue. No one will snatch you away at night for talking. The cure is right there where your voice is, but if you do not raise your voice, the cure will not reach people but will stay focussed on rats and monkeys.

So am I selfish for demanding a cure for chronic illness when diarrhea is still killing children in Africa and south east Asia? No, because one doesn't have anything to do with the other. High wages in western countries do not lower wages in poor countries, the fact that you have a high definition TV does not prevent a poor child from going to school, and the focus on stem cell cures does not prevent a cure for diarrhea deaths.

Actually, demanding that medicine and science is opened up to regular people's opinions will get us not only stem cell cures but will, if we focus on movement correctly, on making sure that people in poor countries are emboldened to fight their own undemocratic regimes and demand real changes in their health and financial situations.

Whenever you think I'm crazy for making such a demand for a cure, and whenever you think you're crazy for believing that such a demand can be met, remember the line from Lorenzo's oil that I mentioned two posts ago.

"Remember the Manhattan Project? Twenty eights months. It took them twenty eight months. Now, if scientists can come together to build the atomic bomb,...surely..."
If a country like North Korea, where people are dying of hunger, can build an atomic device, it shows that 
money is not a barrier to science. In North Korea, people do not have the right to raise their voices and 
demand that money be diverted to meet people's needs, but where most of you are reading this blog from, 
you do have that right. Let's not waste it.

Stem cell cures are around the corner if you demand it. What we need to focus on now is how to raise our 
voices together.


  1. Hi Dennis. It won't be long until I see you in the union office then!

  2. Amen!
    Great writing! The nail has been been hit right on the head!