Rethink Health - June 2010
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Should We Prevent Prevention?
This month I have been assailed on all sides by opportunities to prevent something. One mail-shot invited me to a mobile private screening facility (discount price £149 all in). Another grounded one of my commercial pilot clients in Canada, in case findings some weeks earlier meant he would have a coronary flying home. A third was somebody's bone density scan report which had been misread as requiring treatment to prevent osteoporosis. A fourth was a perfectly normal cholesterol result used to justify a statin prescription. For my wife there was a test to detect bowel cancer, and last chances to have a free smear test and breast cancer screening. I lost count of the offers of medical or life insurance!
I don't entirely put this down to the advancing age of me and the people around me. I think we are being encouraged to fear. The more affluent we appear to marketeers, the more fear they try to sell us. Perhaps politicians gave them the idea.
As private citizens, what have we to fear? Outliving our pensions, perhaps.
The best that can be achieved by pre-emptive screening is pre-emptive treatment for silent progressive disease. This is far better prevented by living well in the first place. We know how to do this: it's what our appetites are for. We can choose activity, love, good food, clean air and pure water - all with a little effort and slight expense. Doing it is quite good fun. It fosters true happiness. Why would we try to do anything else?
All of us must die sometime of something, but would prefer it not to be lingering and painful. If we take too many prevention messages too much to heart, doesn't something in us die a little? We subtract some effort from actual living, in return for reassurance that we can go on doing it. How long will that assurance last? - months only. The pressure is on to "live" from one check-up to the next, in an increasingly crowded calendar. Perhaps it's another addiction. It's certainly not healthy.
My advice is to carry on living like a youngster, but wise to match your age. How old do you feel in your head? Go by that. If your body ever starts to let you down, you will probably be the first to know. Meanwhile feed it well, wash it, lubricate and ventilate it, enjoy it, be grateful for it, and expect to use it as vigorously today as you did yesterday. Celebrate Life always, that impossible process that never seems to fail. Don't fear that it will. The more you live, the longer and better you can. It's working for me, so far.
Craig Venter's latest exploit made the headlines this month, "the first self-replicating cell on the planet whose parent is a computer". His team synthesised a short strand of DNA, got a yeast cell to grow it to a complete chromosome, then planted the product in a similar bacterium whose own DNA had been removed. The germ started to make protein according to the new chromosomal code.
This is quite a long way from creating life, which would be meddlesome and pointless since breeding is already cheaper and more fun.
But high hopes hang on Venter's efforts. His company has contracted with ExxonMobil to create algae that will fix carbon dioxide directly into petroleum-like fuel. What about others than can turn oil spillage to biomass? Now if either or both of these were to come off, it might be worth the risk that is always entailed when natural checks and balances are over-ridden. It could hardly be more dangerous than indefinite reliance on nuclear power. Maybe Venter, "a man of supreme immodesty", may actually be making a difference.
Vaccine Against Breast Cancer?
Tests on a batch of specially bred mice recently produced a very unusual result - 100% protection of the treated group. The mice were particularly prone to breast cancer and a new vaccine preserved the life of all the treated animals. All the untreated animals died.
There followed the usual hyperbole. There are important differences between mice and humans, whom we do not deliberately breed for cancer-proneness. Attacking a protein associated with breast cancer may not amount to attacking breast cancer. And no vaccine yet has proved to be entirely risk-free.
Besides which, we know already how to evade cancers in general, including those of the breast. Oestrogen dominance can be neutralised cheaply and safely, at least in women. Growth hormone-like products in beef and dairy foods can be avoided. The anti-oxidants that populate vividly-coloured vegetation are attractive to the eye, appetising, and protective to eat. Steady routine exposure of the skin to sunlight creates far more protective vitamin D than cancer risk.
None of that earns anyone anything, however, whereas a vaccine .........
We'll have to wait and see, in any case. Development for human use will take about ten years. By that time, perhaps we will have set vaccines in a more sensible perspective. Already, very few are seriously worth the reliance we currently place upon them.
Which brings to mind the vindictive sentence placed this month on Dr Wakefield by the GMC. Why do we tolerate this wretched abuse of perfectly good doctors? Hell hath no fury like a band-wagon scorned. Perhaps this relentless hounding betrays a nagging suspicion that after all he may have a point. I think he does. I doubt if his persecutors sleep peacefully at night. If they wish to suppress every legitimate concern about public health practice, they can't afford to sleep at all.