Working at a Museum doesn’t just mean thinking about the past, often it involves a bit of dabbling in futurology as well. We are lucky enough to have a very rich medical collection at the Science Museum, centred on objects collected by Henry Wellcome. However, his collection ends in 1936, when he died. So, in order to keep up to date, we are always thinking about the kind of objects that we need to acquire for the collection.
With medical technology changing so rapidly, we could easily run out of space unless we collect carefully. One of our criteria is to collect things which represent a real shift in medical practice, or the way the public understand and use a particular medicine.
With ‘swine’ flu (H1N1) having been declared a pandemic, my colleagues and I have been discussing whether or not it is time to collect tamiflu. I’m not so sure it is… Why not? While the word ‘pandemic’ sounds very extreme, it actually means that an infectious disease that can be found globally. The ‘ Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed over 20 million people, and was thought to have infected half the world’s population. But not all pandemics have such high infection or mortality rates. And the use of an anti-viral treatment such as tamiflu isn’t a new idea.
We do have antivirals in the collection already, for instance AZT, the first successful anti-viral able to treat HIV/AIDS. This was such a major shift in the treatment of HIV/AIDs, we felt we should acquire some. But while it went on the market in 1987, we didn’t acquire any until 1994 – perhaps for ethical reasons, as it is difficult to justify collecting a treatment which is in high demand and short supply.
As for the tamiflu – one of my colleagues thinks the current pandemic, and the media and public responses to it, justify us looking at acquiring some. Her suggestion? She has been offered a half finished packet, which someone she knows stopped taking due to the side-effects. Not only does this remove any ethical issues (the medicine can’t be re-prescribed to someone else), there’s also another interesting story to be told, about patient compliance.
What are your thoughts? Should we take on tamiflu?