Sunday, November 01, 2009

Tropical diseases in the Muslim world

It seems that neglected tropical diseases extract a heavy toll on many of the Muslim countries. In fact, members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) account for "40% of the global burden of intestinal helminth infections". Here is an editorial from the Public Library of Science (PLoS) with a very descriptive title, The neglected tropical diseases and their devastating health and economic impact on the member nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference:
Unlike better known infections that occur in North America and Europe, the NTDs represent the most common infections of poor people living in developing countries, causing chronic and debilitating conditions that result in impaired childhood growth and developmental delays, poor pregnancy outcome, and reductions in agricultural worker productivity [5],[9],[10]. As a result, the NTDs not only adversely affect health, but they also represent a major reason why poor people living in the OIC and elsewhere cannot escape poverty [9],[10]. For example, between 200 and 300 million people living in OIC countries are infected with one or more intestinal helminth infections, i.e., ascariasis, trichuriasis, and hookworm.
Together, the OIC member states account for up to 40% of the global burden of intestinal helminth infections. Children living in the affected countries on average harbor the largest number of intestinal helminths compared to any other age group, and as a result suffer growth stunting, reductions in physical fitness, and developmental and delays [5],[9],[13]. Intestinal helminths impair the ability of a child to learn in school [9],[13], which probably accounts for the observation that chronic hookworm infection in childhood reduces future wage-earning [14]. High rates of hookworm infection also occur during pregnancy, and represent a major cause of anemia among African women [15],[16].
The editorial also brings up a lack of tropical disease medical schools in these areas:
The impressive establishment of new and distinguished universities in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and elsewhere [34],[35] could also be tapped to provide training in tropical diseases. Currently, no school of tropical medicine exists in the Middle East, i.e., one which is similar to either the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine or the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine [36]. Establishment of such an institution in the Persian Gulf region in order to specifically target health disparities in the OIC countries would represent a breakthrough in medical and public health education in the Middle East. A comprehensive assault on NTDs represents one of the most cost-efficient mechanisms to improve health among the poorest people living in OIC countries and to simultaneously lift them out of poverty [9].
It is quite incredible that no school of tropical medicine exists in the Middle East. By the way, I'm often asked why should we care about teaching biological evolution in the Muslim world. Well this provides a good reason: strong background of modern biology will be essential in such medical schools - and evolution is the foundation of modern biology. Sure enough, one can learn much about medicine without explicitly learning about evolution - but that will be like driving a car with one hand tied behind the back. Not to mention that any mutations of diseases (such as the bird flu virus) may simply elude a general explanation in the product of such an education system.

In any case, please check out this slightly grim editorial in PLos.

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