Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bioethical transitions

In public health, they have the theory of 'epidemiological transitions'. Usually this refers to changes in disease patterns in a population, and more specifically, the change from infectious (such as cholera) to chronic diseases (such as Alzheimer's). These transitions, according to the theory, go hand in hand with large-scale social and economic developments, as well as biological, cultural and environmental factors. Some countries, once marked by high prevalence of infectious diseases, are starting to see a rise in rates of cancer and hypertension.

There seems to be an analogous 'bioethical transition' afoot, particularly visible in rapidly emerging economic giants like India and China. Not too long ago, the primary bioethics questions in such countries were about primary health care and resource shortages, but as new technologies increasingly enter into the picture, you start to see questions about prenatal diagnosis, allocation of respirators, or use of embryonic stem cells trickling in. True, these kinds of questions currently crop up among a social elite in these countries, and for that reason, these sorts of issues should not dominate academic or media attention. But the fact is that these new issues are there, along with the more traditional challenges, and have to be dealt with in ways that resonate with local sensibilities and values.


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