Thursday, July 19, 2007

brilliant flashes of dictatorship

"Occasional brilliant flashes of dictatorship".This was the subtle phrase uttered by Robert Mukondiwa of the state-owned newspaper The Sunday Mail in Harare, Zimbabwe, to describe his country's political situation.

We'll get to the science and HIV/AIDS link in a minute. But first, an explanation.

OK, technically speaking, only 49% of the newspaper is owned by ZANU-PF, the only political party allowed to function in the country. The interesting thing is that nobody knows who owns the remaining 51% of the newspaper. A good guess would be very, very close friends of high-ranking government officials. Now, the last time a Zimbabwean newspaper had a mystery owner, it turned out to be the Central Intelligence Organisation.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that it is very difficult to do good science within such a context. Probably good science reporting is also a rather difficult thing to do when basic human rights are ... shall we say ... less than a priority?

Back to the science. Robert was talking about Zimbabwean health department campaigns in which children were forcibly vaccinated against the wishes of their parents, who appear to have fallen victim to some of the ridiculous rumours about vaccination.

And this led to a really interesting discussion about rights and responsibilities, which are often to the public as a whole - and the individual does not have a right to put other people's health at risk just because they don't believe in vaccination.

On the other hand, this scenario tend to apply to highly infectious illnesses (bird flu? Extremely drug resistant tuberculosis?) and easy techniques for prevention ... like vaccines. Nobody's advocating forcibly testing people for HIV, for example.

So while Zimbabwe might be a dictatorship, a health worker wielding a syringe against common childhood illnesses is not a dictator.

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