Archive for October 21st, 2008

China Plans Universal Health Care

October 21st, 2008 | No Comments | Source: Lancet, NEJM, Wall Street Journal

In a stunning policy turnabout made possible by its swollen coffers, China announced that it will cover health care costs for 90% of its population by 2010 and implement universal coverage by 2020.

The plan has global implications given China’s enormous population, its questionable capacity to address epidemics of communicable diseases such as avian influenza and SARS, and its troubled pharmaceutical and food processing industries.

For 35 years after Mao Zedong assumed control of China, the government employed physicians and owned, funded and operated China’s health care system. During this time, China achieved dramatic improvements (albeit from a very low baseline) in life expectancy, infant mortality and other measures of population health.

Then in the early 1980s, in what appears to have been collateral damage from a larger effort to privatize its economy, China essentially dismantled its health care system overnight, replacing it with nothing. Central government spending on health evaporated, leaving overwhelmed provincial and local authorities to coordinate care, physicians to fend for themselves and normal citizens with no choice but to pay for health services out of pocket.



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Will the Real Gordon Brown Please Stand Up?

October 21st, 2008 | No Comments | Source: Economist

Seems like just yesterday when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had sunk below the Mendoza Line. Criticism had morphed to ridicule. The man had been skewered as the anti-Midas of politics-everything he touched had turned to stone.

But things turned on a dime for Mr. Brown. Now we see him as a global savior. The European media sings his praises daily and even newly canonized Nobel economist Paul Krugman lauds the dour Scotsman as the guy who got it right with his plan to inject cash directly into UK banks, a plan soon copied around the world. All hail the laser-like antidote that saved us from the abyss!

How are we to explain the transformation? Did the lights just go on, was it dumb luck, or did circumstances simply play to his strengths?

The Economist suggests it’s mostly the latter. Brown was smart enough to recognize a good idea when he saw one. Thus, his plan borrowed from Sweden’s 1992 bank-rescue strategy for example, and it incorporated good ideas put forward by David Cameron’s Conservatives.

Beyond this, his austere personality and the experience he gained as economic grand master for the Blair administration positioned him to think clearly at the moment others were counting life preservers (including a certain Treasury Secretary who cut his teeth during flamboyant times on Wall Street).

But the phoenix act may be short-lived for Mr. Brown. A lot rides on whether his plan actually works and whether folks in the UK blame him for the deep recession they (and we) still must face.

One thing we know on this side of the pond is that the Brits will not give Mr. Brown a long leash. We’re still trying to figure out why they soured so completely on Tony Blair.


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In Study, Monkeys Overcome Paralysis

October 21st, 2008 | No Comments | Source: Nature, Washington Post

Scientists reported in Nature this week that monkeys could overcome a temporarily paralyzed wrist in order to continue playing a computer game, a finding that could point towards new treatments for people that have sustained spinal cord injuries or a stroke.

Amazingly, the animals pulled off the feat by controlling the activity of a single cell in their brains.

Chet Moritz and colleagues at the University of Washington tested two pigtail macaques (see picture) in their study. The monkeys had learned to play a game in which they manipulated their wrists up and down in order to move a cursor towards a target on a computer screen.

The scientists then implanted probes to track firing patterns in the monkeys’ brain cells and observed as the monkeys played the game. They noted that certain brain cells fired at different frequencies when the monkeys raised or lowered their wrists.

The researchers then used anesthetic to temporarily block nerves that normally activate wrist the monkeys’ wrist muscles, and connected the brain cell probe directly to an electrical stimulator affixed to the monkeys’ wrist muscles.  In no time, the monkeys learned to use the artificial bypass tract to move their wrists so they could continue playing the game.

The finding is, “an important step forward.” Case Western Reserve scientist Dawn Taylor told the Associated Press. Taylor works in the field but was not involved in this study.

But Moritz cautioned that human applications are at best a decade away. “There’s no way to say with confidence that it will work,” he added.


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