The Battle Against Sickness and Death—Is It Being Won?
NO MORE sickness, no more death! To most people this might sound like little more than wishful thinking. After all, as medical doctor and professor of bacteriology Wade W. Oliver wrote: “Since earliest recorded history, disease has incalculably shaped the destiny of mankind . . . Great epidemics have swooped down upon man with fearsome speed . . . Illness has forever dogged his footsteps.”
Is there any reason to believe that a drastic change is imminent? Is medical science close to eliminating all sicknesses and perhaps even death itself?
Unquestionably, doctors and researchers have done remarkable work in the fight against disease. What informed person can fail to be grateful for the successful treatment of cholera, finally achieved toward the end of the 19th century, or for the development of a vaccine against the dread smallpox? That vaccine was developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner from a less deadly cowpox ulcer. In 1806, United States president Thomas Jefferson expressed the feelings of many others when he wrote to Jenner: “Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived; future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox existed.”
Moreover, the successes of medical research in connection with diseases such as diphtheria and poliomyelitis must also be mentioned favorably and with gratitude. And few people today have anything but praise for more recent progress in the treatment of heart disease and cancer. Nevertheless, people are still dying from heart disease and cancer. The goal of eliminating all disease and sickness has proved to be quite elusive.
The “New” Diseases
Paradoxically, today’s era that has seen the advent of CAT scans and reconstructive surgery has also seen the birth of a crop of “new” diseases, such as Legionnaires’ disease, toxic shock syndrome, and the highly publicized killer named AIDS.
Granted, many question just how new these diseases are. An article in U.S.News & World Report comments that, in some cases, diseases that have been around for a long time have simply been more accurately diagnosed and given new names. Legionnaires’ disease, for example, was first identified in 1976, but it may previously have been misdiagnosed as viral pneumonia. Similarly, toxic shock syndrome may previously have been mistaken for scarlet fever.
Nevertheless, a number of maladies seem unquestionably new. AIDS is no doubt the best known of these. This crippling and fatal disease was first identified and named in 1981. Another less known “new” disease is Brazilian purpuric fever. It was identified in Brazil in 1984 and has a mortality rate estimated to be 50 percent.
No Cure in Sight
So, in spite of man’s best efforts, a full and permanent cure for human ailments is nowhere in sight. It is true that the average life expectancy for humans has increased by about 25 years since the year 1900. But this change has mainly been due to medical techniques that have reduced the risk of dying during infancy or childhood. Man’s life span basically remains near the Biblical “threescore years and ten.”—Psalm 90:10, King James Version.
It thus made news when Anna Williams died in December 1987 at the age of 114. Commenting on Miss Williams’ death, a columnist wrote: “Scientists think that 115 to 120 years is probably the upper limit of human longevity. But why should that be? Why should the human body give out after 70, 80, or even 115 years?”
In the 1960’s, medical scientists discovered that human cells seem to have the capacity to divide only about 50 times. Once this limit is reached, it appears that nothing can be done to keep the cells alive. This tends to contradict earlier scientific theory that human cells could survive indefinitely if given the proper conditions.
Couple that with the realization that much human suffering is man-made. As one researcher perceptively concluded: “Diseases have not been conquered through biomedical fixes alone. The history of disease is intimately bound up with social and moral factors.”
The World Health Organization observed: “We have inflicted wounds on ourselves, in the belief that science, doctors and hospitals would find a cure, instead of preventing the very causes of illness in the first place. Of course we cannot do without the medical care facilities that actually save life, but let us be clear that they do not add to our ‘health’—they stop us dying. . . . The self-destructive urge of the smoker and the drinker, the effects on mind and body of unemployment—these are some of the ‘new diseases.’ Why do we allow the ‘road accident epidemic,’ which plunders lives and drains our financial resources?”
Disease, sickness, suffering, and death are thus still very much with us. Nevertheless, we have reason to look forward confidently to a time when there will be no more sickness and no more death. Best of all, there is every reason to believe that that time is near at hand.
[Box on page 4]
THE “DISEASES OF EGYPT”
That men have fought illness in vain from early times is noted even in the Bible. Moses, for example, made an intriguing reference to “all the evil diseases of Egypt.”—Deuteronomy 7:15.
These apparently included elephantiasis, dysentery, smallpox, bubonic plague, and ophthalmia. Moses’ people escaped such ailments largely because of the advanced hygienic practices imposed upon them by the Law covenant.
A careful examination of Egyptian mummies, however, has resulted in the identification of a host of other “diseases of Egypt.” These included arthritis, spondylitis, diseases of the teeth and jaws, appendicitis, and gout. An early secular medical writing, known as the Ebers Papyrus, even mentions diseases such as tumors, afflictions of the stomach and liver, diabetes, leprosy, conjunctivitis, and deafness.
Ancient Egyptian physicians did their best to combat these illnesses, some becoming quite specialized in their medical fields. Greek historian Herodotus wrote: “The country [Egypt] is full of physicians; one treats only the diseases of the eye; another those of the head, the teeth, the abdomen, or the internal organs.” However, much of Egyptian “medicine” was really religious quackery and far from scientific.
Modern physicians have enjoyed much greater success in their battle against disease. Still, medical researcher Jessie Dobson drew this thought-provoking conclusion: “What, then, can be learned from a study of diseases of past ages? The general conclusion from a survey of the evidence seems to be that the diseases and afflictions of the remote past do not differ markedly from those of the present . . . Apparently all the skills and efforts of patient research have done little to eradicate disease.”—Disease in Ancient Man.