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Most Domestic Research Ignores India's Health

NEW DELHI--Industrialized nations tend to focus their medical research on diseases generally associated with a high standard of living, such as heart disease. But a study in the latest issue of Current Science, an Indian journal, suggests that India also devotes a significant portion of its research to diseases of the affluent.

Indian medical research has its priorities "lopsided," contends Subbiah Arunachalam, an information scientist at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Madras (now called Chennai). His study of almost 20,000 scientific articles indicates that diseases ranking high in India's mortality and morbidity statistics, such as malaria and tuberculosis, were not major areas of publication between 1987 and 1994. For example, tropical medicine ranked 16th with 432 papers, and parasitology ranked 22nd with 292 papers. And despite the fact that there are more than 12 million blind people in India, "hardly any" research was done in ophthalmology, reports Arunachalam.

Instead, the big killers of the industrialized world, such as cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders, topped the list. Oncology ranked sixth with 821 papers, and cardiovascular diseases rank eighth with 663 papers. The number-one field (2394 papers) was the grab-bag category "general medicine," followed by pediatrics. Although these latter two groups may include diseases that afflict the poor, Arunachalam suggests that research priorities still reflect an attention to prestige and the needs of the rich rather than the needs of the country as a whole.

The finding has met some receptive ears. Martanda Varma Sankaran Valiathan, a cardiac surgeon and vice chancellor of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Manipal agrees that Indian medical research has "remained aloof from the people." Vulimiri Ramalingaswami, a pathologist and former director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, agrees, but he offers one big caution: "Mere numbers of publications is a dangerous index to take, as even a single paper can be a seminal work."