A healthcare worker, recently returned from Sierra Leone to Glasgow, is loaded onto a plane for London for treatment for the UK's first case of Ebola. These resources are not available in the developing world. Photo: Getty Images
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Does Western medical research still have #firstworldproblems?

When more money in Britain is spent on researching cures for baldness than for malaria, then there's a problem.

In a society obsessed with appearance, a healthy head of hair is to die for. We spend more money worldwide on curing baldness than malaria, which killed half a million people in 2013 (that’s roughly the population of Edinburgh).

It feels like every year we’re edging closer and closer to winning the battle against baldness. Just last week it was announced that scientists may have found a cure for male pattern baldness using stem cells. That’s great news for old balding men, though not so great for the 1.4 billion people suffering from fatal diseases ignored by the Western world.

When it comes to medical research and funding, some diseases are favoured more than others. David Cameron named dementia as “one of the greatest enemies of humanity”. He said this last year during the launch of a government-funded research campaign, which put forward £100 million to help find a cure for dementia by 2025.

Forty million people suffer with dementia worldwide. Yet there are other equally devastating diseases that fail to attract the same sense of urgency, attention, and money. For example, elephantiasis, which globally afflict 120 million people, and soil-transmitted helminthiasis, which afflicts over 1 billion people. These are just a few of the "neglected tropical diseases" — a term describing a group of infectious illnesses that cause suffering to people in the poorest countries due to lack of basic health care services. They are known for affecting the economically and politically marginalised, and pose little threat to high-income countries.

Over the past ten years the West has become somewhat more concerned with neglected tropical diseases, and has taken steps to address the problem. Last month, a new initiative was launched in Parliament called the University Global Health Research League Table (GHRLT), which aims to create awareness of how university research policies can positively impact the health needs of developing countries. This is the first of its kind in the UK - a disappointing fact when you consider how influential they are, with more than 30 per cent of new drugs developed at universities. However, research and medicine is difficult to access and often unaffordable for those in developing countries. Perhaps the increased attention to neglected tropical diseases is owed to the realisation that one day they might become not-so-tropical - and hair loss may not be as much of a priority as diseases that cause death.

Ebola, for example, also a neglected tropical disease, very recently saw the largest, deadliest, and most complex outbreak since its discovery in humans almost 40 years ago. Prior to this epidemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has records of 26 outbreaks, and nearly 2000 cases of the virus between 1976 and 2013, most of which were in sub-Saharan Africa. But when the WHO declared Ebola as an international health emergency in August of last year, it highlighted the fact that there were no proven cures, treatments, or vaccines to prevent infection. It caused a global panic, which even lead CNN to ask whether Ebola was the "Isis of biological agents".

Diseases shouldn’t become a concern only when it threatens the adults, children, family and friends of the wealthy western populations. Even though Ebola was unlikely to cause a major outbreak in the UK, the symptoms - bleeding from the eyes, ears, anus and other orifices, before finally dying - were difficult to ignore. It forced many to look at global health issues from a different perspective.

However, sudden surges of western interest in tropical diseases are not new. They've historically been linked with politics, war and colonialism - for example, research into tropical diseases, such as Yellow Fever, only became an area of concern when it caused settlers and soldiers to become ill, therefore interfering with Europeans attempt to control Africa. People in developing countries make up 80 per cent of the global population, yet only account for approximately 20 per cent of global medicine sales. Without economic incentives it's unlikely that drug manufacturers would dedicate money, time and research into creating new drugs for populations unable to afford them.

The GHRLT showed that, of the 25 top-funded universities, most were not investing a substantial proportion of their research budget into global health. This includes the University of Cambridge, which ranks 15th in the league table. Eight universities were awarded a grade D or worse (on a scale from A+ to D-) for their commitment to global health. And only seven showed commitment to making their findings easily accessible to those in developing countries. “Most universities are not doing enough to tackle the needs of the poorest”, said co-lead of the initiative, Dzintars Gotham. “Universities should take seriously their ability to do work in areas that are neglected by profit-seeking companies.”

Medical research is expensive even for wealthy countries like the UK, let alone for developing countries. Universities should invest more of their research budgets into global health and medicine, as well as sharing their knowledge and discoveries in ways that are easily accessible to the world’s poorest countries. The unrestricted availability of scientific research papers is important for everyone, but particularly for global health as it helps scientists from developing countries progress in their own research.

While Cameron may consider dementia “one of the greatest enemies of humanity”, I disagree. The greatest enemy of humanity is not just one disease, or many - it is the West spending more money on curing baldness than malaria, and ignoring the medical needs of the marginalised, unless or until it becomes a threat. 

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How Labour activists are already building a digital strategy to win the next election

Momentum volunteers are developing, coding and designing online tools to get Jeremy Corbyn elected.

Part way through Momentum’s launch of its digital hub, participants join in with a “Clivestream” – a Google Hangout with the Labour MP Clive Lewis – projected on to a wall, calling in from a field at Tolpuddle Festival.

The stunt is intended to fuse the future of socialism with its deep historical roots. The festival is held annually to remember the 19th century Tolpuddle Martyrs, early trade union activists whose harsh treatment sparked massive protests. “[Tolpuddle] is often seen as a turning-point in the rights of working people,” says Lewis, before the call is briefly gate-crashed by an animal rights campaigner approaching from behind in a “Spanish Civil War Ale” T-shirt.

“In terms of what you guys are doing, you’re basically on the cutting-edge of 21st century socialism,” Lewis continues. “And its ability to be able to connect through to hundreds and thousands and millions of people. You’ve seen in the last election, how powerful the technology [is] and the growing impact it’s having on our democracy.”

The symbolism of the video link is not lost on those present.

“I think it’s really significant to have an MP livestream in from Tolpuddle, which is obviously a traditional left-wing event to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs, livestreaming into an East London hackathon done by Momentum,” says Joe Todd, Momentum’s press and communications officer.

At the launch, a young and diverse group of around 60 volunteer coders, developers, and designers, meet at Newspeak House in Shoreditch – a “community space for political technologists”. Most are Londoners, but some have come from as far afield as Yorkshire, and even Paris. Momentum hopes to replicate this at regular events in different cities across the UK, as it aims to develop the technological tools to help Labour win the next election.

Although this officially isn’t until 2022, Momentum doesn’t want to be taken by surprise again if a general election is called early. The group built its carpool site to help activists know where to canvass, called My Nearest Marginal, in about a week when the last election was called. “No one slept, basically, for the whole of the campaign,” recalls Todd. "We went on an absolute bare-bones budget.”

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By planning a long-term digital strategy, Momentum hopes to improve on Labour’s 2017 election performance. Its social media team is developing tools to analyse the success of videos and posts among each demographic (one in three people on Facebook viewed its videos during the campaign), in order to expand its reach further.

The team is also building its own online payments system – it had been using PayPal, which charges a fixed fee, meaning “losing about a quarter of our donations to the one per cent”, according to digital officer and former Bernie Sanders staff member Erika Uyterhoeven. 

She is not the only former Sanders campaign worker interested in Corbynism. Supporters of the two left-wing politicians built a fruitful relationship during the election campaign, with activists coming over from the US to help train canvassers. Ben Packer, who helped code during the campaign, says: “I’m just trying to help people steal our stuff… Even though the issues are somewhat country specific, they’re analogous – you want a better National Health Service, we want some national health service; the tech is the same.”

He’s currently trying to build an app for Momentum that allows anyone to create an event, which will then appear to other members in the area.

Much of the technology being developed is used for internal Labour Party votes as well as external election campaigning – the phone bank app, for example.

Momentum members are currently being canvassed to vote in potentially crucial conference committee elections. Yet activists at the digital hub launch said such internal party organising won’t lead to deselection attempts.

Todd dismissed recent stories about a “deselection list” of MPs floated on a local Momentum branch’s Facebook group, saying it was “patently not a deselection plot”, and the story “really lowers journalistic standards”.

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Momentum’s membership is up to 27,500, from 5,000 before the leadership challenge to Corbyn last year. Add in Labour’s polling lead – the most recent YouGov survey put it eight points ahead of the Tories – and “momentum” is a feeling as well as a name.

The group thinks it has the Tories on the run, and finds the idea of the Conservatives copying its strategy laughable. “If you don’t have the political programme or the vision that mobilises people and makes them enthusiastic and passionate, the technology’s useless. So the Tories can steal it all they want,” says Todd.

However, he sees no prospect of this happening any time soon. Looking at Theresa May’s potential successors, he says: “Their most inspired choice seems to be David Davis, which is a real indictment of the party” (perhaps Davis could make “Momentum’s most inspired choice” his leadership election slogan).

The activists recognise criticisms as well. While the enthusiasm and expertise represented by the digital hub may well attract more young people, it seems less apparent that it would win over older working-class voters in the Midlands and North.

“There was a swing against Labour in some places, and I don’t think the strategy should be to replace those seats with seats in the South, it needs to be a coalition,” Todd acknowledges. Yet he argues that “Momentum’s a lot more than what you see today”, referring to members across the country who are “embedded in all sorts of communities”.

How closely this central structure of Momentum is linked with its members across the country is up for debate, especially after controversial constitutional changes earlier this year. Rida Vaquas – who wasn’t at the event but is a member of Momentum’s governing National Coordinating Group – argues: “There is very little way, if any, that local branches can co-ordinate Momentum’s national activity in line with their own work, as local branches are no longer represented in Momentum’s democratic structures.”

When asked whether they do a good job co-ordinating national social media activity with local branches, Harry from the social media team admits: “Not really, that’s something we need to work on”. Ruth Berry, digital officer, sees the Hub as a promising way for “communicating with our membership across the country”, as “local groups can now use this digital hub to feed into us what their problems are, and how they can be best fixed”.

In a recent article, Tony Blair panned the electoral offerings put forward by both sides in June – particularly as far as Brexit strategies were concerned – calling them “two competing visions of the 1960s”.

Still, the campaign being built at Momentum’s digital hub appears as innovative as it was electorally useful at the election. However, Berry is adamant that Momentum has no cause to be complacent now: “We haven’t won a general election yet, so our work isn’t done.”

Thomas Zagoria is a Danson Scholar studying History and Politics at St Anne's College Oxford. 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.