Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Medical malpractice?

Last week Gilbert Sesinyi wrote a response to a letter I wrote. I had objected to his idea that doctors and medicine were the source of our ill-health problems. According to Gilbert all we need is to do is avoid processed food and the “whiteman” and things will be OK.

For instance one of Gilbert’s central ideas seems to be that all organic chemicals are good for us and inorganic ones are all poisons. This is a huge simplification. Oxygen, baking soda and water are all inorganic along with an enormous range of minerals without which we’ll die. On the other hand nicotine, monosodium glutamate and most nerve gasses are all organic compounds. The terms organic and inorganic don’t mean the same as good and bad.

He says that people aren’t living as long as they used to and that this is medicine’s fault. I wanted evidence for this. All we got from Gilbert was an observation that his grandparents lived longer than his parents. Sorry Gilbert but that’s not evidence, that’s an anecdote. It’s a bit like saying that Uncle Albert smoked 20 cigarettes a day, lived to be 90 and therefore smoking isn’t dangerous.

The facts are actually simple. If you exclude the people dying because of AIDS, we are living longer than ever before. It’s our average life expectancy that has decreased and it’s AIDS that did this. Simple as that.

We then had to read Gilbert’s opinion that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Instead he says that AIDS is due to poor nutrition, cellphone usage and “the whiteman’s culture”. This is similar to the evil nonsense South Africa has been forced to endure from the revolting Matthias Rath. All you need to do, says Rath, is buy vitamins and AIDS will go away. Oh and if you can buy them from him things will be even better. Well for him they will.

I really do object to this reckless, often paranoid denial about HIV and AIDS. I know people living with HIV and they have achieved amazing feats in coping with their infection, modifying their lifestyle, taking ARVs when required and continuing to be valuable members of the community. The denial movement slaps them in the face.

We should count ourselves lucky that we live in a country that is relatively free of AIDS denialism. Countless numbers of our South Africans cousins have died as a result of it and it’s a tribute to us as a country that our government, our health sector and most of our people have avoided the temptation to blame someone else for our situation and instead have taken some level of responsibility for it ourselves.

While all this got me a little hot under the collar Gilbert’s other assertions just made me laugh. Apparently I’m “a member of the oppressor’s nation, the white people”. Furthermore white people are all “either evil or the beneficiaries of evil”. Why can’t we shed these out-dated notions that categorise people “by the colour of their skin rather than the contents of their character”?

A much wiser man than me once said “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”. He also said that “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. He was black by the way, although he did have a very “white” name: Martin Luther King.

Oh, did I mention that my grandmother is 87 and is fighting fit?

Richard Harri-whiteman
A reply from Gilbert Sesinyi in the Botswana Guardian
"Doctors do as they’re taught".
Rest assured a response has been submitted already from this "
member of the oppressor’s nation, the white people".

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.