Friday, January 12, 2007

Be wary of doctors?

I read with surprise and some degree of outrage the column by Gilbert Sesinyi last week in the Botswana Guardian. His piece entitled “Be wary of the doctors” was a startling piece of scaremongering and I think potentially dangerous.

In his column Gilbert suggests, amongst other things, that “the whiteman… is motivated by profit over excellence” and “His ways are surely the ways of death”.

It’s probably best if I gloss over who exactly this “whiteman” might be. I know it’s not me, because I happen to think profit and excellence are equally good things and that they can’t be divorced. Also, with the exception of that snake in my back yard a few months ago I don’t think I’ve killed anything recently.

The worrying thing about what Gilbert wrote was to do with health and the medical profession. Unfortunately much of what he wrote is clearly mistaken. For instance he states that “there is evidence that ancient man lived much longer than modern man”. What evidence? My understanding is that worldwide people are living longer than ever before. It is reckless to suggest that because the average lifespan here in Botswana has dropped into the 30s that this is because of medicine. It’s down to AIDS. It’s because of the medical and pharmaceutical professions that we have ARVs. The ARVs that are helping to increase lifespans despite the effect of HIV, not reduce them.

It’s also mistaken to suggest that doctors know nothing about nutrition. Gilbert asks why doctors don’t tell us to avoid processed food, refined flour and sugar and food laden with pesticides and fungicides. Well, as someone who spent the first half of his career surrounded by doctors I can’t remember ever meeting a doctor who didn’t go on and on about healthy eating. Also, without at least some of those chemicals we wouldn’t actually have any food to eat.

There is nothing inherently wrong with chemicals. Salt is a chemical. Baking powder is a chemical. Monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG, which Gilbert suggests is a poison and “the root of chronic diseases”, is a naturally occurring substance found in tomatoes, peas and in soy sauce.

I firmly believe that we should be skeptical about all things and I certainly don’t exclude medicine and doctors from my skepticism. However we must be reasonable and accept that despite some failures, despite some scandals and despite some people seeing medicine as the solution to all of life’s problems, medicine is why most of us are alive today. Without medicine I probably wouldn’t have lived to an age when I would be grumpy enough to write irritated (and probably irritating) articles for newspapers. My wife would be dead, my eldest son would never have been born and my parents wouldn’t have lived long enough to know their grandchildren.

The solution is, as always to use our brains. If a doctor says that HIV was developed by the CIA in conjunction with aliens that doesn’t make it true. History is littered with the aftermath of charlatan doctors and healers who have brought about suffering and death, but that doesn’t undermine medicine as a body of knowledge and doctors as people who help us live to a ripe old age.

I often think it’s amusing, in a savage sort of way, to wonder who those who oppose medicine would call for if they, or heaven forbid, their children were injured in an accident? A nutritionist or a qualified doctor? I know who I’d want to see in a white coat.

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