For those of you that do not know the classic anti-war protest song by Edwin Starr that was released during the Vietnam war, have a look first.
It ain’t hard to be convinced that war is good for absolutely nothing. I agree. During my high school days I wore a peace sign button on my coat. And although it is gone now, I am still a pacifist. So if you got worried after reading this blog title, don’t. I am still on your side.
And like you read in the un-development MDGs, if we would half the arms transfers to the developing world by 2015, we’d all be much better off. All that money could be used in much better ways than for AK47s, bullets, and grenades.
But here’s a little ‘but’ for you.
Next time, when you sit out in the garden during a nice summer evening, and you apply the mosquito repellent DEET on your arms and legs, don’t forget to say ‘Thank you’.
When you travel next to a malaria-endemic country and you take mefloquine (Lariam) as prophylaxis, don’t forget to say ‘Thank you’ every time you swallow a tablet.
Chloroquine is an anti-malaria drug that has saved millions of lives over the last five decades. It is still in use in many parts of the world, and continues to cure people. That’s millions of times ‘Thank you’. For the first seven years I lived in Africa I took chloroquine as a prevention against malaria. ‘Thank you’.
Sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine (Fansidar) is an anti-malaria drug that is being used by more and more African women during pregnancy (called intermittent preventive treatment, or IPTp). Thousands of infants are receiving the same drug to prevent malaria during their first year of life (IPTi). All of them should say ‘Thank you’.
If you ever bought yourself an insecticide-treated pair of trousers for hiking in tick or mosquito infested areas, don’t forget to say ‘Thank you’ every time you are out in the sticks.
The ‘Thank you’ is for:
The United States Army.
I know I know. If the title did not upset you already, the ‘Thank you’ to the US army may have. Or perhaps I upset you twice in a row. I’m sorry.
But it was the US Army that wanted something to protect their troops against insect bites in thick tropical jungles. They screened thousands of chemicals as repellents against mosquitoes and discovered DEET, now used by more than 200 million people annually around the world. How many bites were prevented with this chemical over the last half Century? How many lives were saved as a result of it?
And it was the US Army that spurred research into medicinal chemistry during WWII that led to the development of chloroquine. When the allied forces were cut off from the quinine supply after Japan invaded Java in March 1942, where 90% of theglobal production of quinine came from, they were forced to massively invest in research on synthetic anti-malaria drugs. Chloroquine came out of this research (after it was shelved by German scientists as being too toxic).
And it was the US Army that, following resistance to chloroquine, developed Fansidar to protect its troops during the Vietnam war.
And it was (and still is) the US Army that invested heavily in the development of insecticide-treated clothing to protect troops.
I’m on thin ice here, but dare I say that more lives were saved by these products and drugs than the casualties suffered during the wars in which these were developed? In all likelihood: Yes.
So what’s going on here?
First, it shows that innovation is spurred by the need for change. And change is directly dependent on a ‘sense of urgency’. When the allied forces lost access to quinine during WWII, it created a massive sense of urgency. In some of the Pacific battlefields more lives were lost to malaria than to bullets. General McArthur reported back to President Roosevelt: ‘Of every three soldiers, one is in bed with malaria, the second one recovering from it, and the third barely fit enough to fight’. If the allied forces were to win the war, they needed a new anti-malaria drug. A year later they had one in production (in the form of Atabrine, also first discovered by the Germans).
Second, the DoD (Department of Defence) has never been short of cash. Well-endowed laboratories, recruitment of top scientists, and ample resources fuelled successful discovery of new drugs and anti-mosquito products.
Third, the US Army is not interested in science that is not of direct relevance to its forces. So the research is directly geared towards immediate benefits in terms of prevention of disease or cure of it.
Fourth: rigour. Only the US Army would screen tens of thousands of chemicals for activity against mosquitoes or parasites.
War is good for nothing. But the war machine has delivered public health benefits that cannot be underestimated. Millions of people around the world owe their lives to it.
Bwire, R. (1999). Bugs in armor: A tale of malaria and soldiering. iUniverse.com. 187 pp.
Slater, LB (2009). War and disease: Biomedical research on malaria in the twentieth Century. Rutgers University Press. 249 pp.