Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Biological literacy

I made a presentation yesterday consisting of a summary of the scientific news out of the International AIDS Society Conference. (Here's a sample of my live-blogging from the conference -- check posts before and after this one if you missed them and you're really interested.) I realized that before I could get into the (bad) news on attempts to develop an effective vaccine, and find a cure, I had to make sure everybody understood just what exactly a retrovirus is in the first place.

I think I did a pretty good job of compressing a semester of college biology into six minutes, but still, it seemed necessary to go back to the very basics of how cells are designed and the underlying DNA-RNA-protein system; and the principal mechanisms of the immune system. Oh yeah, evolution happens to be essential to this story also.

It troubles me greatly that many people with HIV, and other serious disorders, don't really understand what is happening to them. Unfortunately, the explanations they get from professionals and even people who consider themselves advocates often consist of misleading metaphors or awkward and inaccurate attempts to hook onto familiar concepts. The resulting inaccuracies in understanding really matter. For example, many people with HIV interpret drug resistance as their body, rather than the virus, becoming immune to the drugs. (I know this because I have interviewed dozens of people living with HIV about their medical treatment.) This matters a great deal for both their own future health and public health more broadly, because it means they do not understand a principle reason why it is important to avoid reinfection, and re-transmission of the virus to already infected people.

I believe that it is possible to explain the fundamentals of biology to people who have limited formal education, or whose education has failed them -- most often because of political interference from people of "faith," which is a fancy word for willful ignorance. I did a primer on statistics here a while back which was surprisingly well received. Would people put up with a primer on cell biology? Even if you already know it, I'd like to see whether I can create an accessible, systematic exposition and this seems like a good place to try it out.