Einstein once observed that "it is harder to crack prejudice than an atom". If he was right, then Hans Rosling is faced with a labour of Hercules. As Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, he finds himself fighting against the cliché that the world is divided between rich and poor. "This neat division simply no longer exists. The statistics reveal a far more complex picture, with more and more people worldwide living in relative prosperity. This means that in health research in particular it is time for a paradigm shift," says Rosling. He has set up the "Gapminder" Foundation to support the view that verifiable data and statistics should be taken as a basis for strategic decisions. In his presentation on Sunday, 29 June in Lindau to mark the opening of the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, he intends to underscore the fact that false assumptions regarding the reality of life for people throughout the world are an impediment to the urgently needed potential solutions to the rising global demand for healthcare.
According to the latest figures from the World Bank, there are currently still some 800 million people living in extreme poverty, without sufficient water, food or basic healthcare. "But very few people are aware," Rosling continues, "that for a large part of the world population, standards of living and life expectancy have increased significantly in recent decades and are approaching those of the Western nations." The inhabitants of countries such as China and Vietnam still remain relatively poor when measured by their average income; yet contrary to widespread opinion, neither malnutrition nor infectious diseases rank as common causes of death. Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are far more frequent killers – just as in the industrialised countries. "These people live like the poor, but die like the rich," as Rosling poignantly puts it. The majority of people even in countries with fast economic growth are unable to afford adequate treatment for what were perceived to be the diseases of prosperity.
As the proportion of old people increases, the demands on healthcare continue to rise. This in turn poses some major challenges for research and industry, since the most effective drugs and the best medical technology are currently available only at prices that are affordable exclusively in the most prosperous countries. Rosling is therefore calling for innovative solutions that will enable as many patients as possible to have the chance to benefit from successful treatment if they fall ill. As a positive example of the ability of parts of the pharmaceutical industry to respond creatively, Rosling points out that the same drugs to treat HIV are meanwhile being sold to patients at prices that vary from country to country – they are less expensive in Brazil and available at even lower prices in Tanzania, for example, than in the USA. Another step in this direction is the manufacture of generic versions of patented drugs in India – with the innovation regarding the synthesis of such products they enable low-income patients to be treated at amazingly lower cost. Generic production is not about copying it is about adding innovations in the production step, Rosling believes.
He makes an appeal to up-and-coming young scientists in particular not to close their eyes to reality, but to make every effort to find more effective and more economical answers to the issues facing contemporary medical research. At the week-long Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting no fewer than 600 selected young scientists from 80 countries will be discussing key issues in the field of physiology and medicine with 37 Nobel laureates. Topics will include cancer, HIV, the immune system and research into intelligent drugs. Professor Rosling last attended the 61st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2011 as a guest speaker, when his presentation of some surprising statistics on world health attracted much attention. He is renowned worldwide as a high-profile public speaker, and several million people have watched videos of his presentations accompanied by interactive dynamic computer simulations on the Internet.
The 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting opens on 29 June and continues until 4 July. It is organised by the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and the Foundation Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The opening ceremony will be live broadcast by the German education TV channel ARD-alpha from 3 p.m. CET.
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