22 August 2001 22:25 GMT+1

This miracle of modern medicine should help to restore our faith in science

04 January 2001  Editorial


It is hard to quarrel with the view of George Kassianos, immunisation spokesman at the Royal College of General Practitioners, when he says: "We have created a miracle." The news that meningitis C, the most lethal strain of of the killer disease, has virtually been eradicated in Britain represents an extraordinary achievement. The 20m price-tag for the national vaccination campaign in the past year seems cheap at the price.

It should serve as a reminder, too, that the scientific progress that surrounds us is real, and life-enhancing in the most literal sense. All too often in recent years, scientific innovation has come to be seen as a perversion of nature. We are rightly wary of some of the advances in genetic technology. We should never lose sight of the bigger picture, however - that scientific breakthroughs add much more to the value of life than they take away.

The meningitis breakthrough is, after all, just one in a long line of changes over the years. The achievement of Edward Jenner, who discovered a vaccination for the killer disease smallpox in 1796, echoes down the centuries to the present day. (Jenner, it should be noted, took risks that would never be permitted today, making small cuts in the arm of an eight-year-old boy and inoculating him with cowpox - vaccinia - and then smallpox. The boy remained healthy; the miracle of vaccination was born.) More and more killer diseases have been struck off the list as the years have gone by. Tuberculosis, which the Victorians knew as consumption, did not strike down only operatic heroines. Polio was a threat in Britain until the 1950s; it is easy today to forget the shadow it cast over society until then.

It is the nature of the news business that the media tend to focus above all on cases where things have gone wrong, not on the good-news stories. That partly conceals an important truth: the breakthroughs continue to be as remarkable in their effects as Jenner's vaccine (Jenner's findings were so revolutionary that the Royal Society advised him not to present anything "so much at variance with established knowledge").

A hundred years later, there was already a misguided sense that we had nothing more to learn. As the US Patents Office declared in 1899: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." At the beginning of the 21st century, we hope to be wiser than that in acknowledging the possibilities of future change.

Already, we have a much greater chance of living longer than ever before. And more astonishing changes seem to be on the way. Thus, recent experiments with mice suggested that a possible vaccine against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease - which affects one in 20 people over the age of 65 - may be feasible in a few years' time. Who knows what benefits we may see from the human genome project? We are only just beginning to understand the brain. But already there is hope that we may one day defeat epilepsy and even schizophrenia.

The real challenge for mankind today is to ensure a more equitable division of the way the benefits are spread. Too much progress still depends on the wealth of the society in which we live. The drugs that can do so much to mitigate the effects of Aids scarcely reach Africa, where 25 million people are infected but few receive effective therapy.

In the words of Jeffrey Sachs, economist and adviser to the World Health Organisation: "It's as though the Black Death were going on in Europe in the 14th century and China were sitting on a cure and saying: 'Why should we help?' " Aids is not the only such example. Cures for cataracts and river blindness, which blight parts of Africa, are cheap - but still reach far too few.

Progress is magnificent and deserves to be recognised. But it should know no borders.