July 26, 2011
by Kelli Thompson
Today I felt a bit like I woke up to find myself in wizardry school here at Oxford, majoring in potions, of course. And although I woke up, as if by magic, at the perfect time this morning even though I forgot to set my alarm clock last night, I know this is not a dream, and not Hogwarts. I learned practical information on medicine today, not wizardry, even if the lecturer’s first name was Merlin.
One of the lectures was on herbal and traditional medicines, the brews and mixtures often thought of by westerners as false medicine or some attempt at magical healing, and the things I learned were nothing short of enlightening. I simply cannot stop thinking about the things that were said today, and the lack of credit that I have ever considered giving plants as legitimate medicinal sources.
When it comes down to it, most medicines have roots (pun somewhat intended) in common plants: Aspirin, for example can be found in the bark of a white willow, purple foxglove is a plant whose extracts are found in treatment for atrial fibrillation, and Catharanthus roseus is the source of drugs that have dramatically improved survival rates of children with leukemia. But, that is only the tip of the iceberg, or as they apparently say in Africa “the ears of the hippopotamus.”
Our lecture started in the Green College garden, one of the 40 college gardens at Oxford University, where Dr. Willcox gave the class a tour, pointing out a plethora of plants and their medicinal purposes, including the ones I mentioned. Some I had heard of before, like the Ginko tree’s benefits for decreasing cognitive impairment and dementia. Others were surprising, like the use of hops, those things you sometimes see on beer commercials, dried and placed in a pillow to help with insomnia, or the use of Artemisia plant extracts for some of the latest anti-malarial drugs to hit the market.
Back in the classroom, a lot of interesting points were made about traditional medicine and its possible place in the future of health care, especially within developing countries. As it is, 80 percent of people rely on traditional medicine for their primary form of healthcare, and there a number of reasons why including lack of access to modern healthcare institutions, the cost of modern treatment, cultural values and traditions, and lack of trust or understanding of hospital practices.
At first I couldn’t help but think what a shame it is that these people are missing out on the most advanced care and the best treatments, but I am no longer convinced that is necessarily the case. Traditional medicine is often a first choice for people because it is available, affordable, trusted, and traditionally safe. On the other hand, in many developing countries modern healthcare does not have that reputation, and some studies there have been better recovery rates observed for those using traditional over modern medical practices to treat diseases like malaria. In fact, the most common reason that people choose herbal medicine is because of perceived effectiveness.
The current trend is to push traditional healers to refer people to the hospitals, but there are some problems with this system. If the small, already overcrowded hospitals giving less than effective care had to suddenly take on every medical case within their widespread domain, they would simply run out of room. This lack of capacity is a major barrier to the current referral process. Referral to a hospital in often unnecessary if the herbal and traditional treatments are working, and a better system of understanding and education between doctors that work in hospitals and the traditional healers in villages is definitely something that needs to be worked on.
We were given the chance to sample the tea used to treat malaria, and it was far from tasty. The Artemisia tea was one of the bitterest things I have ever tasted…although I am sure that if I was faced with the choice of dying from severe malarial complications and drinking a liter of bitter tea I would much rather suffer through the taste.
At the end of the day, I am no longer entirely sure that embracing the benefits of traditional medicine in rural villages is such a bad idea. I do believe that the technology and advancements that have been made in modern medicine are both exceptional and necessary to save lives, but there also must be a reason that traditional healing practices have lasted within these communities for so long. Like Merlin said, the absence of indisputable evidence is not evidence of ineffectiveness. Ultimately, there really needs to be a perspective change in which we become more open to exploring and understanding alternative medicine systems before writing them off as impractical.
Kelli Thompson is a junior neuroscience major in USC Dornsife.
July 25, 2011
by Mallory Jebbia
It all ends July 15. We’ve all seen the posters for the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 film recently spread across billboards and bus stops alike. The end of a series that has captivated the old and the young around the world is finally here. Sure, one can watch the films again, reread the books, even visit the new Harry Potter theme park but nothing compares to the excitement a true Harry Potter fanatic feels reading one of the books or seeing one of the movies for the first time. Many of us have grown up with Harry Potter. He and his two best friends have been the ultimate coming of age story that has lasted over a decade. I can’t think of a better way to start my journey to Oxford than to visit London’s BFI IMAX theater to complete my Harry Potter journey. After a 12-hour flight delay, I arrived in the UK with just enough time to get to the hotel, to meet some new friends and head over to the 3 a.m. showing of the film. The screen was…life altering.
I had heard that the screen was the biggest in the UK and one of the largest in the world but this reality didn’t set in until I walked into the theater and was engulfed by the screen. The 3D glasses were of course fashionable and the movie went above and beyond my impossibly high expectations.
While I can’t help but feel sad that my Harry Potter journey is over for now, a new journey is about to begin. As the movie ended and the locals and tourists filed out of the theater, my first official day in London began. It was a shock to walk into a movie when it was dark and walk out to a sunrise when the movie was over but I can’t think of a better way to start this day. As we walked in the direction of our hotel, we stumbled across a bridge with a beautiful view of the Thames, the London Eye Ferris wheel and Big Ben. Upon returning to that same bridge later in the day, the wonderful view was marred by the fog. I can think of no better time to use the phrase “the early bird catches the worm.” All thanks to Harry Potter.
Mallory Jebbia is a senior ciochemistry major in USC Dornsife.
July 15, 2011
by Judy Haw
Tuberculosis. Mapping malaria. Parasitic infections. Poison and venom. Global inequality and health. HIV. Malaria vaccines.
While I am far removed from being a pre-med student, I still find these topics exciting and fascinating. I suppose this is one reason I was asked to coordinate the USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passports BISC 499 Global Medicine course when Dr. Kenneth Geller discovered he would be unable to make the trip. This course is being taught at Oxford University over a three-week period starting on July 18. I must admit, that while I did jump at the chance to return to the United Kingdom, I found myself more excited about being a part of the experience that the students will encounter.
Although the application process got a bit of a late start in the spring, the course was filled with 13 students who will make up the first cohort to engage in this important and timely topic. The USC participants are truly a diverse group that includes sophomores to seniors and biology to business majors. Many of the students will be making a repeat trip to Europe and/or the UK. For some, this will be their first time out of the United States. But all of the students share a common goal of wanting to attend medical school someday. Each one is at a different point on this path with some students having just completed the general chemistry course while other just completed the MCAT exam a few days prior to their departure for England.
Several of the students will begin this adventure early as they will fly to mainland Europe and spend time exploring some of those countries prior to meeting up with the rest of the group in London. Our group will be complete on Sunday, July 17 as we board a train from London to Oxford. Although we had a couple of get-togethers in the spring, this train ride will mark the first time all 14 of us will actually be together. I am, however, confident that these students will quickly bond and will find themselves close friends by the end of the course.
Oxford University faculty and physicians will teach the course. The students will typically hear two lectures each morning and then will work on their research project each afternoon. The student’s research will focus on a global health issue/problem from several different perspectives to better understand the humanitarian, economic and political impact it could have the affected country. They will also examine how their problem could also cause a number of worldwide consequences.
Additionally, one day the students will travel to London to visit medically related exhibits at the British Museum, the Wellcome Collection, the Hunterian Museum and Guy’s Hospital. Another day will be spent traveling to Gloucestershire to tour Dr. Edward Jenner’s House to learn about the birth of the practice of vaccination.
My hope for the students is that this experience will not only affect the way these students think about medicine but that it will actually alter how they will eventually study and practice this art.
Judy Haw is director of the USC Dornsife Supplemental Instruction program. She is also the associate director of the Freshman Science Honors Program.