Healthcare, medicine & pharmaceuticals

Future epidemics

Back in 1918 influenza killed somewhere in the region of 20 – 40 million people. Whatever the number it was certainly more than the total number of people killed in World War One. So what’s most likely to kill a similar number of people in the future? There’s the possibility that a new virus or strain of virus will emerge from some far flung region – ‘H5N1 chicken flu’ for example – and the speed of infection could be extraordinary due to the networked nature of modern society (think of how SARS was spread by airtravel) However, the most probable future plague is something very nasty from the past. And never mind bio-terrorism, this could all happen quite naturally. Old favourites like smallpox and polio could make a comeback due to a lack of immunisation and then there’s a possible return of the 1918 strain of flu or it’s 1957 and 1968 variants.

Ref: Spiked Online (UK) 9 November 2004 – Plagues of the future/superstition helps spread viruses, J. Oxford.

A hospital in your own home

The idea that today’s luxuries become tomorrow’s (mass-market) necessities certainly applies in areas like household goods and electronics but is not generally applicable to markets like medicine. In most countries medical ethics and egalitarian politics theoretically make treatments available to everyone, even if some people have to wait longer for treatment than others. So it’s rather interesting to hear about the Philips Heart Start Automatic External Defibrillator (AED). That’s right, your very own personal defibrillator available from for US $ 1,495. The price might give a few people a heart attack but at least they can treat themselves. So what other specialist medical technology and treatments can we expect to see on amazon and eBay in the not too distant future?


Packaging solutions

A study published in the British Medical Journal says that suicide deaths from overdoses of aspirin and paracetomol fell by 22% after legislation came into force to reduce the size of packs. Non-fatal overdoses also fell by similar amounts. The legislation did not apply to ibuprofen so it’s interesting to consider that non-fatal overdoses from ibuprofen increased by 27% over the same period and the number of deaths remained the same.

On a vaguely related note researchers from the Applied Vision Research Centre (UK) say that 25% of prescription errors are caused because pharmaceutical companies have a tendency to give products very long names – which people can’t remember or read incorrectly. Another packaging related problem is that older people often take the wrong medicine simply because the names on packs are too small.

Ref: The Guardian Unlimited 29 October 2004 – Call for smaller packs to reduce suicides, J. Martin. The Times (UK) 20 November 2004 – Drug confusion.

Bright bacteria

Bacteria might not be as dumb as people think. According to new research bacteria (in your mouth for example) can communicate with each other, act collectively to create ‘cities’ (called biofilms) and defend such cities against attack. There is even a theory that bacteria can act to confuse host cells. The good news is that researchers have also found a way to jam the messages bacteria send to each other. While we’re in your mouth, Violight ( is a toothbrush sanitizer that works by blasting your toothbrush – and up to three others – with ultraviolet light. 99% of germs are killed within 10 minutes apparently.

Ref: The Times (UK) 6 November 2004 – Meet the bug builder J. Burne. Time (US) 29 November 2004 – Inventions of the year.

Brain enhancement.

A product called ‘Children’s smart oil’ is number 4 on Boots the Chemist’s list of top selling 10 vitamins and supplements in the UK. Interesting perhaps, but hardly a beacon for the future - or perhaps it is. Maybe there is an untapped market out there for a ‘genius pill’. There are currently about 40 ‘cognitive enhancement drugs’ in development in the US. Most of these aim to cure illnesses such as Alzheimers, but a few aim to enhance the already well by increasing learning ability or memory. Indeed, there are a number of products already on the market (one of them is coffee) that help people to stay awake or improve short-term concentration. Organisations like the US Air Force are interested in drugs that can counter fatigue (they even have a unit called the Fatigue Countermeasures Branch) and business would undoubtedly embrace such drugs in the future if they were legal and productive. But perhaps we’re getting too clever for our own good. After all, one of the reasons that the brain forgets things is to make way for new information so who knows what the unforeseen consequences of such brain enhancements could be.

Ref: Plausible Futures Newsletter (US) 16 September 2004 – Supercharging the brain

Ways to mend a broken heart

Have you noticed how nobody says they are sad anymore? People either feel happy or depressed. Happiness is the desired state in our increasingly narcissistic culture and depression is considered an illness, which should be treated. Indeed the very concept of sadness seems to be disappearing in Western cultures - when was the last time someone died of a broken heart? The reason for this is partly to do with time and space. To be sad, and recover from sadness, takes time which very few people (except the elderly) have these days. Sadness also needs privacy, which again has all but gone away. Our constant busyness leaves no time to grieve (or to grieve for others) and the trend to express one’s emotions instantly and openly (e.g. 9/11, Diana et al) means that the prevailing orthodoxy is that one good (collective) cry can heal us. Yet sadness should be embraced because without it we cannot feel real happiness.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 20-21 November 2004 – No time for the blues, R. Reynolds.