A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Bard and a New Malaria Treatment


In All's Well That Ends Well a courtier, Lafew, offers encouragement to the King, who is ill (the reference to grapes and foxes is to the fox in Aesop's fable, who calls the grapes sour only because they are out of reach):

Lafew: "Good faith, across!
But, my good lord, 'tis thus: will you be cured
Of your infirmity?"

King: "No."

Lafew: "O, will you eat
No grapes, my royal fox?... I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With sprightly fire an motion, whose simple touch
Is powerful to araise King Pepin, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in 's hand
And write to her a love line."

In a sane world, a medical breakthrough that benefited those who suffer most, who suffer wholesale, would stop the presses. The childish games of presidential polls and congressional cowardice would be temporarily forgotten, and a silent undertow would tug the latest amber alert or adolescent angst-driven parent killing off the front page so that it might be filled with information on how, for example, a new malaria vaccine showed real promise in sub-Saharan Africa, offering hope for the alleviation of suffering among the least among us.

King John: "…Who comes here! A grave unto a soul,
Holding the eternal spirit, against her will,
In the vile prison of afflicted breath."

In fact, a study conducted in Mozambique has just been published indicating that new malaria vaccine does show real promise in sub-Saharan Africa. The injection reduced clinical malaria by 30% and serious malaria by 58%. Moreover, it continued providing protection for 18 months, long enough to accommodate the logistics of aid workers. Since a permanent vaccine is currently unrealistic (and because the previous first world demonization of DDT, the most effective anti-malarial agent, has placed that near-cure off limits) this seems to represent the most striking, currently employable resource against a disease that takes two million lives a year, most of them children.

"Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips."

- King Lear, IV.vii.26.

The debt of gratitude humanity owes Glaxo Smith Klein for developing this vaccine cannot be overstated. Again, in a sane world, movie and television studios would be competing even now for the rights to the story of its development and the faces of the researchers, led by a Dr. Joe Cohen, would be reverently displayed on posters in the bedrooms of middle schoolers throughout the nation, replacing Britney and Justin, Demi and her young beau, Angelina and Brad and all the other opportunistic growths of ego and assertion that appear in the absence of sunshine, hope and care.

"With the help of a surgeon he might yet
recover, and yet prove an ass."

- Midsummer's Night Dream, V.i.312.

In a sane world, moreover, our governmental leaders would speak candidly and with confidence to our democratic siblings of the developed world, and more in sadness than in anger, asking England, Canada and Japan in particular, where is their contribution to the medical advance so essential to maintaining the health of humanity, in our increasingly global community? How do they answer to the collapse of innovation in their otherwise innovative nations, and has not the nationalization of their medical industries cost the world their participation in maintaining its health?

King Lear: "Kill thy physician, and thy fee bestow
Upon the foul disease."

The gratitude owed to Glaxo Smith Klein extends not only to its contribution to the alleviation of the suffering of the afflicted, but to the lifting from our own minds of the oppressive awareness of that suffering. But the public stage where such gratitude might be expressed and echoed is yet controlled by media organizations that will not permit its expression. Macbeth consults with his doctor:

"Throw physic to the dogs; I'll none of it."

Paeans to drug companies, after all, would run counter to the health care nationalization agenda that is the semi-conscious motivation of our major media. And so it is that any celebration of science in the defeat of disease goes unsung, unpraised, and practically unreported where song, praise and report might impermissibly endorse the profit motive that funded the research behind the breakthrough. A mainstream media that proclaims itself pro-science thus renders itself mute in the face of scientific advance. Lady Macbeth's doctor speaks for the current state of affairs between medicine and the media:

"This disease is beyond my practice."

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