Contamination of intellect and medicines

Published: October 3, 2012
The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

A collective short memory is a mixed blessing. We continue to provide ourselves with news that should make stories for the ages but a short memory, fortunately, allows us to dust off any shock or frustration and we move on to the next day. But every now and then, it is worthwhile to go back, take stock and ask ourselves did we learn anything, anything at all? Are we better off today after the incident?

So today, I want to go back in the not-so-distant past and analyse two, apparently, unrelated incidents and the aftermath of those.

The first incident happened about nine months ago. A ‘mysterious disease’ started taking the lives of innocent people in Lahore. Nine months later, we still do not have any clear answers, no policy outcome and certainly no clear strategy to ensure that this does not happen again. While it is generally accepted that it was some sort of contamination in essential life-saving drugs that caused one of the worst public health incidents to unfold, it remains unclear who shares the blame. We may never know how the custodians of national security looked over a gaping hole in drug quality control and did nothing about it. Looking back, I consider the society divided into three groups. There are those who have forgotten about it, and there are those who still believe it is ‘bairooni saazish’ (foreign conspiracy) and then there are those who lost everything. We should ask ourselves, which of these three groups deserves our support ?

Fast forward about six months, another piece of news, this time a supposedly positive one, grips the nation. Promoted by federal and provincial cabinets ministers, endorsed by the media and immediately absorbed the people, we are told that a car, that runs on water, has been ‘invented’ by a Pakistani. With water aplenty and petrol scarce, we were told to believe that all tried and tested laws of thermodynamics are worthless when it comes to desi innovation. Get ready, Kelvin, Gibbs, Clausius and other pioneers of thermodynamics, here comes the water car to bamboozle you and all those who contributed to our understanding of how cars work, what engines do and what physics has to say about it. Again, there are three groups.

Those who still believe that this can happen and that elitist groups are stopping Pakistan from changing the world, the group that doesn’t remember anything about the water car and the group that considers it a sorry chapter in our collective intellect.

Apparently, the two stories have nothing to do with each other, but I believe both of them point to a fundamentally similar problem. At the very core, it is the breakdown of quality control. Now, I know that there will always be contamination of medicines, in every country, through complacency, incompetence or malicious intent. The point is to ensure that the system catches it and ensure that if it ever happens once, it never happens again. The real point here is to share with all, why did it happen and whatever happened to safety checks that are supposed to be in place?

The same can be said about contamination of intellect and common sense. Every now and then, we will be duped, but we have to have means to catch it and ensure that it does not proliferate at a national level. Charlatans who promise the moon and some more will always be there. What is unfortunate is that they are promoted as national heroes by the government ministers and the media alike. Again, we should insist on why we allowed this to happen and what have we done to make sure that next time someone claims to convert lead into gold, we don’t allow the government to call him the next national hero.

A quick scan of these, and many other similar events peppered throughout the year, has just one message: a little bit of rigour goes a long way. Insist on a little bit of quality control and we might be able to save ourselves and our intellect from contamination.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (2)

  • Maqbool
    Oct 4, 2012 - 5:38AM

    Well said Dr. Zaman, but most if not all have forgotten about both the incidents and hence we won’t ever learn from them.


  • Huma
    Oct 4, 2012 - 5:41AM

    I think most are in the category of the forgetful — makes life a heck of a lot easier around here.


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