Medical Research and the North-South Divide

In the Harvard International Review, Richard Cash looks at medical research imbalances and the North-South divide.

Why should the world be concerned with this disparity in health research funding? What is wrong with counting on researchers from the West to do appropriate research, some of which can be carried out in the developing country, but some also from the safety of a laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts? After all, research institutions in developing countries are often poorly staffed and equipment is usually outdated and/or poorly maintained. In fact, why are developing countries unable to simply utilize the information generated in the developed world? In the end, information will gradually be disseminated. All people will eventually have the same problems, so is it not just a matter of time?

There are many responses to these questions. The days when a country could erect a cordon sanitairé around itself are long over. We are part of a global ecosystem in which human disease is but one factor. Every country has been affected by the global AIDS pandemic. The avian flu epidemic has the potential to threaten us all. The millions of deaths that might occur from this or any other global flu epidemic—well over 25 million died in the 1918 global epidemic—will be rapidly distributed throughout the world. Poor health and disease clearly contribute to instability within societies. The degree and speed of development is directly related to the health of society. In East Asia, good health preceded development. Societies burdened by HIV/AIDS, malaria, or similar conditions have a difficult time escaping the cycle of poverty.