Curing the Incurable: Medicine’s Reason for Hope

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Curing the Incurable: Introduction

In 1986, Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the character of Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, a blind person who can see with the help of a VISOR. Recent medical advances have moved us ever closer to this fantastical solution, with new possible cures such as ocular implants and stem cell therapy. This is just one of the thousands of ways that science has moved an incurable disease or condition into a thing of the past.

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Curing the Incurable: What are they?

Incurable diseases are diseases that do not yet have a cure. Sometimes incurable diseases are fatal. Medications and treatments may be able to lessen their symptoms, or prolong the estimated life span, but to date, the disease always leads to the death of the patient. An example is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), although Stephen Hawkins is a good example of someone who greatly outlived the predicted life expectancy of the disease.

Sometimes, advancements in drugs and treatments have caused a previously fatal illness to become a lifelong manageable condition. Medications can lessen the symptoms, improve the wellbeing and life expectancy of the individual. Many once incurable diseases now fall into this category. Examples include asthma, diabetes or HIV/AIDS.

Curing the Incurable: Why are they incurable?

There are many reasons why some diseases are not yet curable.  For example, the disease may not yet have been studied enough to understand it, and hence an appropriate cure may not have yet been found.  Another possibility is that the illness constantly evolves, so that the vaccine cannot protect against every form of it. Examples include influenza or the common cold. Or a cure has been identified, but its side effects are too serious, or it has not yet been received sufficient human testing to be considered safe.

Patients diagnosed with incurable disease should not lose hope. While there may not be a cure for a specific incurable disease, there is likely a treatment available to alleviate the symptoms and help the patient live a full life. Often important steps in research come very rapidly. And even without an immediate cure, some patients also use faith, prayer, meditation or other form of spirituality to compliment medical treatment. The power of positive thinking has been shown to improve recovery rates and chances of survival.

Curing the Incurable: Examples

The rapid advancement and development of treatments for many of the world’s biggest killers mean that many incurable diseases become manageable conditions within just a few years. Here are the leading incurable diseases, according to the numbers affected.

  • Polio, or poliomyelitis, is an infectious disease that spreads all throughout the nervous system.  It mostly affects children below five years old. It has no cure, although it can be easily prevented through vaccination.The virus that causes polio usually enters through the mouth. As the virus enters the body, it immediately infects the cells of the body and starts to multiply rapidly. Polio symptoms include stiffness, fever, vomiting, nausea, and body pain. It can lead to paralysis.  It can also cause death due to the immobilization of breathing muscles.In the early 1900s, polio epidemics affected North America and Europe, especially in cities during the summer months. The subsequent widespread paralysis of adults and children lead to the “Great Race” towards an effective vaccine. Developed in the 1950s, it has led polio rates to plummet from many hundreds of thousand per year, to about 1,000. Today, polio has been virtually eradicated from the west. On-going efforts at global vaccination could eliminate the disease.
  • HIV/Aids (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) – This incurable disease is often fatal. The antigens in the virus allow it to hook onto T cells, the white blood cells that help coordinate activities of the immune system. Once it infects them, the virus multiplies. HIV affects the immune system leaving the body susceptible to other diseases. These additional diseases can lead to death. This incurable disease can be transmitted through transmission of bodily fluids including unprotected sexual activity, blood transfusion, and needle sharing. You cannot get HIV/AIDs from kissing, hugging or sharing a toilet with someone. The HIV/Aids virus primarily affects the brain and the immune system.  One-quarter of those with HIV suffer from neurological problems — including seizures and dementia. Other Common symptoms include sweating, weight loss, fever, and inflammation of organs. HIV is now managed through combination of antivirals. While these have a number of serious side effects including headaches, fatigue, hypertension, liver damage, pain in the hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy), they can extend the life span indefinitely.
  • Common Cold (Acute Viral Rhinoparyngitis, Acute Coryza, Nasopharungitis or a Cold). The common cold is an infectious disease that is viral, incurable, although self-limiting (the body heals itself). It used to be thought that a cold was caught from exposure to cold environment, hence the expression “Come away from there, you’ll catch a cold”. However, it is now known that colds come from exposure to someone with the virus. There are more than 100 agents that cause the common cold including coronaviruses, parainfluenza, influenza, respiratory syncytial viruses, and reoviruses. Rhinoviruses, are the most frequent cause. Symptoms may also have a sore throat, cough, fever, and headache.  These symptoms may last for weeks. The common cold can lead to other health problems, e.g. bronchitis.  One way to prevent a cold is by developing a strong immune system. Zinc, vitamin C, Echinacea, Ginseng are all immune booster (To add hydration, it’s recommended that you drink echinacea tea or ginseng tea).  A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fibers, lean protein, and regular exercise are also key to a strong immune system.
  • Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is a metabolic disease that is usually triggered by several factors. There are two types of diabetes: Type I and Type II.  Studies show that diabetes can be caused by both hereditary and lifestyle factors. Type I diabetes is typically diagnosed in children, who treat the disease with insulin injections for the rest of their life.  Type II diabetes is usually diagnosed in persons over forty, who manage the disease through diet and exercise, although insulin injections might also be necessary. Lack of exercise and obesity are both risk factors for Type II diabetes. Without proper treatment, both types of diabetes can damage the kidneys, eyes eventually leading to blindness, nerves, feet, and the heart.

Curing the Incurable: Are they incurable forever?

Although it depends on the disease, in short, probably not. Rapid advances in antivirals (HIV), cancer drugs, stem cell therapy, pinhole surgery mean many of the disease previously believed incurable are now successfully treated, or the lifespan considerably lengthened. New information about risk factors and how they affect the development of the disease can help the individual make the lifestyle adjustments to prevent many common diseases. For example, we now know that the human papilloma virus can cause genital warts and cancer. While there is still much room for improvement, this discovery has greatly improved vaccination rates.

Genetic testing is a growing field that can tell you what diseases and conditions you are predisposed to develop. In the United States, the use of genetic information is governed by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Prenatal genetic testing gives parents the choice to abort if the child will be born with a life-threatening or painful disease. Because genetic testing can open up a range of ethical issues and health concerns, there is usually counseling involved.

As we understand our own health better, we have more information to adopt the best possible lifestyle for our own physiology and genetic profile. Many diseases, such as such as diabetes Type II, are usually avoidable with lifestyle adjustments. If you are at risk for developing a hereditary disease, you should consult your doctor early on.  Early identification and treatment of a disease usually significantly improves your life expectancy or a cure.

Curing the Incurable: Conclusion

Keyhole surgery, genetic testing, stem cell therapy. Each of these medical advancements would have been inconceivable a few decades ago and yet have helped thousands, and in their efficacy and promise, they touch all of our lives.

And yet, despite our advancements, and the relentless march of modern medicine, some diseases remain incurable. Prevention, screening, and a healthy lifestyle are key to managing seemingly incurable diseases. And if you are struck down, remember to connect with friends and family and stay upbeat. A positive outlook has been clinically shown to improve people’s life expectancy, recovery rates and wellbeing

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