Thursday, July 10, 2008

Evil Tofu

News roundup (the BBC wins this week) - continued craziness in Britain as two leading sexual health charities have announced the sex lessons should begin at age 4; they conclude with a quote from a 16-year old mother who seems to have been unaware that sex might lead to pregnancy. As if you needed a reason not to eat a lot of it, researchers have shown a correlation between tofu consumption and dementia risk. Those eating tofu at least once per day seem to have increased memory loss by their late 60s. Lastly, according to our Prime Minister's reckoning, it is a "mathematical certainty" that the developing world will have to shoulder most of the world's carbon emission reductions by 2050, which is a relatively original take on the situation. I'd like to see those calculations.

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An interesting question in science, ethics and health was discussed this week (as well on the BBC) by Sir John Sulston, a Nobel-winning biologist and advocate for freedom of information in biology. It is his studied opinion, and my lesser one, that we should not be able to do things like patent genes or genomes, that we are allowing drug companies to become "disease mongerers," and that we are allowing the health of our citizenries be eclipsed in importance by intellectual property law. I think these are irresponsible things for a society to do - the tools by which knowledge is produced can be patented, but I am not sure about the knowledge itself. However, I am sure that health isn't an economic indicator like GDP and shouldn't be overlooked in favour of it because it's more difficult to measure.

I am reminded of what Brazil did a couple of years ago with regard to AIDS medications. Brazil, a developing nation currently straddling the gap between the third and first worlds, has some 620 000 people infected with HIV according to AIDS Alliance. Brazil took the rather noble viewpoint that everyone who had AIDS in their country should be medicated. This was a rather expensive proposition in 1998; the cost of treatment in the developed world is about US$10 000 per patient per year. Even after significant reductions by the pharma companies, the total was still around US$5 000, which runs to a grand total of roughly US$3.1 billion per year of treatment. Rather than let prohibitive costs hold them back, Brazil - which has a remarkably enlightened stance on intellectual property in general - broke the patents and started producing the drugs locally.

This had a tremendous effect - it created skilled jobs, saved the Brazilian government billions of dollars, and - most importantly - ensured that they had the capacity to provide the medications required by that portion of their population. Of course, Merck was pretty upset about this, even going so far to say that this might mean it would be no longer profitable to develop drugs for the developing world. Considering we now know that at least one major drug company spends over 50% more on marketing than drug development, I don't think we should be very sympathetic to this sort of reasoning. Allowing profit to trump health is evil, and that's all I have to say about that.

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