Tuesday, September 7, 2010

If you could invent one vaccine it'd be for . . .

AIDS? Carcer (pretend it's possible)? Heart attacks?

I was talking to friends yesterday and I said that the next frontier in human welfare is dealing with the problems that are all in people's heads. We've eliminated most communicable diseases in the United States and met our basic needs. Not a lot of people die young, and those that do often die in accidents that are hard to prevent. As the rest of the world develops (China and India will both be like the U.S. in 50 years or less, it appears) this will come to be true worldwide.

At that point we can continue to worry about marginal gains to life expectancy from inventing cancer drugs and treating heart disease. And we can worry about priming the engines of growth with education so that 50 years hence our grandchildren can each have $150,000 in income instead of $100,000. Or we could worry about ensuring that 10,000 people don't die prematurely from lack of health insurance.

Or we could look at what the next frontier. Here are projections for 2030 and statistics for today, restricted to the high income countries that most of the world will resemble in 50 years:

Note: I don't know how these numbers are calculated in details. I don't put a lot of stock in exact predictions like these, nor do I like the methology here in particular (I suspect). But I think the general pattern should ring true for anyone living in the United States or Europe and paying close attention. Also, I'd like to emphasize that, while the study thinks of "unipolar depressive disorders" are something that either affect or don't affect people, I think (esp. in the future) it's better to think of them as something to affect everyone to a greater or lesser extent. Some bridges are "unstable" but every bridge has a breaking point. Some roads are bumpy, but every road could be smoother. Some people are a wreak, but everyone gets down when they probably shouldn't.

Also, this doesn't fit anywhere but I know that just because something is a big problem doesn't mean it's the most important problem to work on. The best problems to work on are both big and tractable--is immunizing kids with coping strategies and a healthy outlook tractable? I think so. We immunized most kids against smoking and that alone probably accounts for 90% of the DALY drop we've caused in the past 40 years (in the U.S.)

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