Tropic of illness

An article published Nov. 7 in the Observer quotes an unexpected claim being made by some experts in the scientific community. According to Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine Professor David Molyneux, ailments like HIV, malaria and TB monopolize medical resources in developing countries.

Focusing on these “high-profile” conditions means more common ailments like sleeping sickness, elephantiasis and river blindness go unaddressed. According to Molyneux, the problem has nothing to do with greedy pharmaceutical companies, but stems from policy makers focusing on familiar medical problems.

It’s certainly true that conditions like HIV and malaria are more high-profile than trachoma and bilharzia. However, it’s difficult to decide how to strike a balance between aiding the greatest number of individuals, and aiding those who are most seriously affected—many of the neglected conditions are not fatal, but severely debilitating.

The publication of this sort of discourse is problematic, because it has the unintended effect of suggesting that some conditions aren’t as serious as others—further hampering aid groups trying to raise awareness about a particular condition or crisis.

For every expert who claims that a particular disease is the most problematic, there will be other experts ready to disagree. Furthermore, assessing the ease of addressing a particular condition isn’t simply a question of medicine; it’s also a question of infrastructure. Tackling neglected tropical disorders may require a different set of measures than those that are currently in place.

Even if some kind of medical consensus were to arise, this would hardly be the end of the problem. Many of the resources in question are funded by grants, charities and government agencies, which aren’t likely to pull money from one cause to address another “neglected” cause.

The medical and scientific communities are comprised of experts. By addressing an uninformed audience, this statement polarizes public opinion. These sorts of statements should be made public in an attempt to raise awareness, but it’s important for the public to acknowledge the complexities involved.

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