Thursday, October 24, 2013

Penicillin is not Avastin, but it could have been...

My book - The smallest Manhattan Project  - is about us , all 10 billion of us , here today or years dead, whose lives have been improved by the advent of inexpensive penicillin.

In a sense, this book is a rarity : one written from the patient's eye view of how that drug came to be ; a welcome change after decades of endless books exclusively devoted to how penicillin looked to the people who discovered and developed it.

Penicillin is frequently called the Miracle Drug but few consider that its biggest medical miracle was really in fact its cost, or rather 'lack of cost'.

Because the diseases that penicillin treats are contagious,  patients too poor to afford a cure remains a reservoir of the most virulent strains, waiting to infect the rest of us.

There actually were methods of preventing much of these diseases before the development of penicillin : they included the ready availability of good jobs, good food, cleaner and bigger homes, greater social respect.

Baring that, only the worldwide availability of a drug that would cure those diseases once they started up, at a price that almost all could readily afford , could reduce these diseases from being endemic or epidemic to just names in a dusty medical textbook.

That is why I can say, with absolute assurance, that even those of us who have never had a single treatment of beta-lactam (penicillin family) antibiotics are in better health today because the grandparent of them all, Penicillin G , is water cheap - literally a lifesaver "too cheap to meter" .

But it almost didn't happen , we almost lost "inexpensive penicillin".

We almost got an expensively patented synthetic drug more akin to Avastin and all those other $100,000 a year plus medications.

"The smallest Manhattan Project" is the story of a doctor ( himself slowly dying of another unrelated disease) who sacrificed his own health to see penicillin from the patient's point of view.

His name should be honoured for all time.

This, despite the fact that he did not discover penicillin and then neglect it (Fleming) nor did he start its re-discovery and eventual development, albeit while pursuing a pathway that nearly killed off that development (Florey).

Dr Martin Henry Dawson, for that was his name, merely said penicillin should be made available - now! - for every single patient whose life could be saved by it , even during the height of a Total War .

Nay, he went much, much further.

Dawson in fact said all should have access to life-saving penicillin, particularly in the middle of a Total War.

That was because that war was supposedly being fought against one opponent in particular, solely because that opponent's core philosophy said that 'some lives are more worthy than others'.

How could we continue to conduct that war with any moral vigour when our own medical establishment was 'me-tooing' Hitler's doctors ?

Now the mantra 'Penicillin for all who needed it regardless of their income level or skin colour' in the mid-1940s meant its mass production, given the vast amount of infectious disease endemic in those years.

And mass production has its myriad ways of driving production costs down, down , down --- as happily happened in the case of Penicillin G in almost textbook manner.

'Penicillin for all' quickly became 'inexpensive penicillin for all' and once that happened, penicillin began to work almost like the way a good public health vaccine program should work : the treatment of the many ultimately offering 'herd protection' to all the rest of us, free of charge.

Insulin is another drug frequently called a miracle drug.

But the sad fact is that it is far more common today than it was beforeinsulin was discovered, for a variety of reasons.

By contrast, the names of all those bacterial household scourges that so terrified our mothers and grandmothers are not even known to most of us under the age of 50, and most doctors practising today have never seen a case of them.

And that is just the sort of modern day miracle that Dawson's mantra of 'penicillin for all' can produce.

For the complex truth is that our choice of medical ethics has economic consequences and these in turn feedback and have medical consequences.

The case of what the mantra of 'penicillin for all' ultimately led to should be taught in every health economics and health ethics oriented university department for just those very reasons....

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