Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Despite growing up in Pakistan, I knew who Marty McFly was. He was my nerdy hero in Back to the Future. For me, Michael J. Fox represented all that was cool and exciting about science and invention. Years later, when I discovered Michael's battles with Parkinson's, I was devastated. I did not know much about Parkinson's except that it had also affected the hero of my parents and my elder siblings, Muhammad Ali. As I read more I realized that it is something that we do not fully understand, something elusive, unclear and messy. I had always wished that someone would come up with a solution that is befitting of Marty's character, something cool, simple and brilliantly imaginative. Max Little's solution, as he discusses in the TEDTalk, will hopefully take us back to the future without the burden of Parkinson's.
Parkinson's disease just does not affect Michael, Muhammad Ali and our favorite celebrities and heroes. It affects people all around us, all over the world. Over 6.5 million men and women worldwide are affected in countries rich and poor. In poor countries, the burden of mental health diseases is particularly profound and painful. The problems of diagnosis and management are already much worse than the developed world, but fatalism, stigma and taboo around mental disorders make these diseases even more difficult for the patients, families and caregivers. There is a dire and an urgent need for simple, robust and easy to manage solutions to diagnose, manage and cure Parkinson's. We desperately need a solution that is cheap and uses the resource available to all, not just to those who are privileged and live in rich countries.
What Max is trying to accomplish for Parkinson's is exciting for me on so many levels. First, he is working on a problem that is truly global and not just a problem of a select few. Second, he is addressing a messy and complex problem, that comes with not only biological complexity but also social stigma and societal challenges for the patient and the caregivers. But for me, the best part is that he is using a solution that is simple, easily accessible and cheap. There is no question that mobile phones have transformed the way we live, but it is the ability to use the same phone call for the global good, that is the most inspirational part. Using a simple phone call to help not just yourself but others with similar difficulties in countries you have never heard of is not only a highly creative solution, it is also the right way to think about global mental health. It is a powerful reminder that we are all in it together. The approach is also inspirational for all those who see difficult health problems in their homes and villages, want to do something about them, but get discouraged by the lack of material resources. For me, Max provides them an inspiration to think big, to combine the most common of tools with the most precious of resources, creativity and imagination. I hope that this mobile phone based approach will not only aid in the discovery of Parkinson's biomarkers but some day, a Max Little in Boston or a nurse in Bhutan, an engineer in Bolivia or an ordinary citizen in Botswana will use ingenuity, creativity and imagination to come up with a comprehensive cure of this and many other diseases.
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