Monday, March 19, 2012

Professionals vs Politicians: Panama Canal & NHS

It looks as though the NHS Bill will become law as Spring arrives in England. This is despite genuine concerns expressed by most of the doctors in general practice and in hospitals up and down the country. 

Anyone reading about the doctors objections should realise that contrary to spins by the government, doctors stand to gain the most from the reforms.

So we could in the years to come face our grand children and say, we did try to preserve it but like the French Government of the Panama Canal time, they did not listen.

It took some years for the true reason for the French Politicians refusal to listen to the Professionals: Corruption. But that is a different story.

I think I know what is going to happen in a few hours. In a few hours' time, the government is going to lose some of the best valued doctors in the civilised world. In a few hours' time, the good will that kept our NHS going for many years would be gone. In a few hours' time, medicine in this country will..................

Panama Lesson:

It is a common practice for politicians to ignore professional advice. Sometimes they might get away with it; sometimes it led to failure, gross failure as in the case of the French attempt at building the Panama Canal.

Can we really learn anything from such a colossal failure?

Panama Canal © 2011 Am Ang Zhang

Most people probably know about the French failure to build the Panama Canal. Many thought that this was due to yellow fever and malaria which were diseases thought to be due to some toxic fume from exposed soil.

Extracted from the Official Website: Panama Canal Authority /French Construction

In 1879, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, with the success he had with the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt just ten years earlier, proposed a sea level canal through Panama. He was no engineer but a career politician and he rejected outright what the chief engineer for the French Department of Bridges and Highways, Baron Godin de Lépinay proposed, a lock canal.

The engineer was no match for a career politician:

“There was no question that a sea level canal was the correct type of canal to build and no question at all that Panama was the best and only place to build it. Any problems – and, of course, there would be some - would resolve themselves, as they had at Suez.”

“The resolution passed with 74 in favour and 8 opposed. The ‘no’ votes included de Lépinay and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Thirty-eight Committee members were absent and 16, including Ammen and Menocal, abstained. The predominantly French ‘yea’ votes did not include any of the five delegates from the French Society of Engineers. Of the 74 voting in favor, only 19 were engineers and of those, only one, Pedro Sosa of Panama, had ever been in Central America.”

The French failed in a spectacular fashion.

They did not listen to the Medical Profession:

Diseases like yellow fever and malaria played their part as a sea level canal involves a good deal more digging.

The discovery of yellow fever being carried by mosquito must be credited to one Cuban physician:Carlos J. Finlay.

For twenty years of his professional life, he stood at the center of a vigorously debated medical controversy: the etiology of yellow fever. Finlay believed that it was waterborne and carried by common mosquitoes: Stegomyia fasciata.

Finlay's advice and experiences proved invaluable to the United States Army Yellow Fever Commission. When the Commission decided to test the mosquito theory, Finlay provided the mosquitoes andWalter Reed of the Commission wrote triumphantly after the success of the experiments of inducing yellow fever by mosquito bites, ‘The case is a beautiful one, and will be seen by the Board of Havana Experts, to-day, all of whom, except Finlay, consider the theory a wild one!’ The US experiments vindicated Finlay's two-decade-long struggle.

Reed acknowledged that ‘it was Finlay's theory, & he deserves much for having suggested it.’

William Crawford Gorgas wrote of Finlay:

"His reasoning for selecting the Stegomyia as the bearer of yellow fever is the best piece of logical reasoning that can be found in medicine anywhere."

The discovery by Major Ronald Ross that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes (Anopheles)had tremendous impact on the Panama Canal. 

Crude oil was used on stagnant water to prevent the mosquito proliferation and nets were used to protect workers. Quinine was extensively used to treat malaria. A lock canal was eventually built by the Americans. 

Some say that a large part of the eventual success on the part of the United States in building a canal at Panama came from avoiding the mistakes of the French. Knowing the causes of diseases must have helped.

David McCullough in his book "The Path Between the Seas" wrote: "The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished………It is a work of civilization."

Cost to the French: $287 Million (1893 dollars) or $6.8 Billion (2007 dollars)

As we stand on the verge of possibly irreversible damage to one of the hallmarks of what it is to live in a civilised country, it is time to rise up and defend an institution that was built by our parents and our grandparents and which we owe to our children and our grandchildren to maintain and to pass on to them and to their guardianship.    Prof John Ashton

1 comment:

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Most people probably know about the French failure to build the Panama Canal. Many thought that this was due to yellow fever and malaria which were diseases thought to be due to some toxic fume from exposed soil.