Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – April 20, 2016

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By: Kimberly Leblanc, Ph.D.

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via photo pin cc

Mental Health

Investing in treatment for depression and anxiety leads to four-fold return – UN report

According to a new study led by the United Nations health agency, published last week in The Lancet Psychiatry, every one dollar invested in scaling up treatment for anxiety and depression leads to a return of four dollars in better health and ability to work. The study estimates, for the first time, both the health and economic benefits of investing in treatment of the most common forms of mental illness globally, and provides a strong argument for greater investment in mental health services in countries of all income levels. Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year, and the prevalence of these disorders is increasing. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 416 million to 615 million. Close to 10 per cent of the world’s po pulation is affected, and mental disorders account for 30 per cent of the global non-fatal disease burden.

The new study calculated treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 low-, middle- and high-income countries for the 15 years from 2016-2030. The estimated costs of scaling up treatment, primarily psychosocial counselling and antidepressant medication, amounted to $147 billion. Yet the returns far outweigh the costs. A five per cent improvement in labour force participation and productivity is valued at $399 billion, and improved health adds another $310 billion in returns. However, current investment in mental health services is far lower than what is needed. According to WHO’s Mental Health Atlas 2014 survey, governments spend on average three per cent of their health budgets on mental health, ranging from less than one per cent in low-income countries to five per cent in high-income countries. “We know that treatment of depression and anxiety makes good sense for health and well being; this new study confirms that it makes sound economic sense too,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan in a press release jointly issued with the World Bank Group. “We must now find ways to make sure that access to mental health services becomes a reality for all men, women and children, wherever they live.” (UN News Centre)

Substance Abuse

Surgeon General uses bully pulpit to combat opioid crisis

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has recently made prescription opioid abuse a top priority, taking part in the CDC opioid summit alongside President Obama a few weeks ago and laying out his vision for addressing the painkiller crisis at a health journalism conference earlier this month. The Surgeon General’s office will release a major report this year on substance use, addiction and health — covering topics including opioids, heroin and other substances. Murthy plans to send a letter to every single provider in the country — anyone with access to a prescription pad, including doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists — helping them understand the risks and benefit of opioids and educating them about safer practices. He also wants to help expand access to treatment for people who have a dependency or substance abuse disorder. The Obama administration has already begun this, as have several state governments. But some of it still has to be funded, and there’s also a big educational component.

Disseminating prescribing guidelines, as the CDC recently did, is a first step. But much of the work that Murthy sees ahead involves changing deeply-rooted attitudes. Prescriber patterns are part of that. But so is making health care professionals and the public understand that substance abuse isn’t a moral failing but a chronic medical disorder and that people who become addicted to medicine prescribed by their doctors aren’t “weak” or “bad” or “criminal,” no matter where they come from.

The drug problem is complicated, as is the solution. Physicians need to be retrained to think twice — or three or four times — before writing that first opioid prescription, he said. The medical community has to reexamine — and more thoroughly research — its entire approach to relieving pain, both chronic and acute. And people who are already addicted, who are at risk of overdose and death, need expanded access to treatment, particularly medication-assisted treatment. An Obama appointee whose pro-Obamacare political advocacy had riled some Republicans and whose frank talk about gun violence had alienated the NRA, Murthy now has bipartisan support and works closely with many Republicans who had earlier been skeptical of him. The opioid crisis, he said, isn’t picking sides. (Joanne Kenen, Politico)

The Future of Space Exploration

Is The New $100-Million “Starshot” For Real?

Last week, billionaire Yuri Millner, along with physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, announced a $100 million dollar project called Breakthrough Starshot. The goal is to launch a gram-sized spacecraft, or nanocraft, to the nearest star, Alpha Centuri.  The nanocraft,or StarChip, will be packed with cameras, thrusters, and navigation and communications equipment—the kinds of things Silicon Valley is good at making tiny and sticking on chips. Once in space, the craft will be propelled by light rather than combustion, courtesy of a thin, perhaps three-foot-wide (one-meter-wide) laser sail attached to each chip. The sail is hit by a carefully aimed laser to push it up to speed; two decades later, the chip and sail arrive at Alpha Centauri. Then the chip beams data back to Earth at the speed of light, giving scientists insight into another solar system just a quarter of a century after the mission was launched. (Watch an animation of the plan here).

Instead of sending just one tiny spacecraft, the idea is to send hundreds or thousands — so many could be lost along the way, without the mission’s being useless. The Starshot team still has a long list of challenges, including potential impacts with space debris, taking in-focus pictures while moving at 20% of the speed of light, and the delay in receiving the pictures, since it will take more than four years for those photos to get back here. Ultimately, launching something like the StarChip will be a multibillion-dollar enterprise, but the team sees it as the first step on the path to the future of humanity. As Stephen Hawking said, “The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it. With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.” (Nadia Drake, National Geographic).

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

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