Science is both invaluable and imperfect. In managing cures to all kinds of diseases and ailments, these competing values offer mixed healthcare results. When medical science goes right, it enables protections and prevention, thereby saving lives. When it goes wrong, however, curative science can create more problems for the population.
As epidemiologists battle COVID-19 looking for a cure, the science behind curative medicine will be called further into question by a rightly skeptical populous. With a history of miscalculated treatments through discovery and implementation, science has had its successes and failures.
From the discovery of potential cures to their long term effects, curative science is a mixed bag of results, problems, genius innovations, and Catch-22s. By exploring the science behind cures, however-the history, successes, and failures-we can help set expectations for a COVID-19 vaccine while exploring the ethical implications of curative medicine.
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Discovery and Implementation
While healthcare as a field represents more than just the curative aspects of care, we still tend to predominantly think of healthcare in these terms. How can we solve and eliminate problems? How can we eliminate not just symptoms but the overarching disease? This is the nature of curative medicine and the basis for all scientific research into cures.
Physicians can treat symptoms in perpetuity, but a cure is viewed as the end goal of medicine. In managing a patient’s oral health, for example, a doctor could prescribe all sorts of treatment plans. However, without a cure for an autoimmune disease that contributes to oral health issues, these fights may be long and costly.
Economists find medicinal research into curative medicine and healthcare treatments to positively impact human health and longevity. Treatments like Herceptin for breast cancer, for instance, show how the development and implementation of a drug can make profound strides towards curing a patient of a harrowing disease, leading to greater healthcare outcomes.
Nearly $1 trillion has been invested in researching cures and treatments in the last two decades alone, a number proving the value of medical science. Endless time, effort, and money are poured into making discoveries that can save human lives. In some rare cases, cures are discovered completely by accident, as in the famous story of Sir Alexander Fleming stumbling upon the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin.
But regardless of how these cures originate, much of their success comes about in the implementation stages. That’s where curative medicine either goes right or wrong.
When It Goes Right
History is filled with success stories when it comes to curing humanity of horrible illnesses. From tuberculosis to polio, diseases that once ravaged the world and caused thousands of deaths as well as lifetimes of hardship now no longer trouble humanity to the same extent.
Polio is perhaps the greatest example of a cure going right. When Jonas Salk put forward a potential vaccine after years and years of research, the world held its breath. Nearly two-thirds of the US population reportedly donated to trial efforts, and when the vaccine roll-out began, it truly worked. Polio cases in the US fell from a peak of 57,879 in 1952 down to 910 by 1962. In 1972, the nation was declared polio-free.
But cases like the Salk vaccine are rare. For many other diseases, a cure is far off and can only be used to treat symptoms. Mesothelioma is one example of such a disease. It requires a careful prevention strategy of asbestos avoidance because the only alternative is symptom management.
While prevention may not be the most efficient healthcare strategy, it beats poorly conceived attempts at cures, which can come with their own slew of health problems.
When It Goes Wrong
The results of scientific cures going wrong can create a lingering culture of scientific distrust, potentially reducing the spread of effective medicines where they are needed. This has been proven in the wake of the 1976 swine flu vaccine, an event that still casts a long shadow over curative science.
When one US soldier contracted and died from a new and deadly strain of flu, the United States government prepared for a pandemic. They rushed a vaccine without proper study or testing. The pandemic failed to manifest, but approximately 45 million citizens were vaccinated anyway. As a result of this mishandled vaccine, 450 people developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes paralysis.
One rushed vaccine with 1-in-100,000 odds of going wrong was enough to cast doubt in the minds of millions of Americans about the safety and usefulness of curative medicine. While anti-vaccination pundits cite other sources as well, events like this are damaging both on an ethical level and in the greater scope of healthcare treatments.
Among mishandled care provisions is the overprescription of addictive pain medication. Opioid use has become an epidemic in its own right, one created by the availability and widespread use of opioids in pain management. Rather than taking the time to invest scientific research into historically utilized opioid alternatives like kratom, the healthcare industry has pushed highly addictive drugs into the homes of millions of Americans.
The Bottom Line
When taking a look back at the history and science behind medical cures, a quip attributed to Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Cures are not guaranteed, and they can come with side effects and risks, just like any medicine. In the case of COVID-19 and many diseases like it, prevention strategies like mask-wearing and hand-washing are the best things that individuals can do to combat the virus while a vaccine is thoroughly tested long-term to ensure no harmful effects.
Medical cures are fantastic when they go right. However, cures must be tested over time to ensure that long-term problems aren’t created in treated individuals. Without cures, we’d have a world still ravaged by diseases like polio. In lieu of cures, problematic treatments can arise that lead to issues like heavy opioid use among the population.
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