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PBS' real-life medical drama

'Rx for Survival' shows the people on the front lines of health crises throughout the world.

November 01, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Airing on PBS over the next three nights, "Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge," is the somewhat dry title of a compelling, six-hour overview of health crises around the world, with detours into medical science and history.

As a TV experience, it's a medical thriller, in a sense, about outbreaks. The race to stamp out new viruses such as avian flu is juxtaposed against concurrent efforts by nonprofits to get established medicines to far-flung places where epidemics for such curable diseases as malaria and polio can be less a matter of science than religious, economic and social impediments.

The series, produced by public television's WGBH/NOVA Science Unit and underwritten in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is narrated by Brad Pitt, celebrity activist on behalf of the fight against African poverty. If that makes "Rx for Survival" sound like a PSA, it's much more ambitious in execution, using documentary-style journalism to take viewers into grass-roots health campaigns and dramatic reenactments to portray medical sleuths throughout history.

This includes Edward Jenner's use of cowpox to immunize people against smallpox near the end of the 18th century, and John Snow's linking London's water supply to a cholera outbreak in the 1850s. Then, as now, the mavericks can find themselves in opposition to the prevailing culture and political climate, although the series for the most part avoids overtly politicizing the intersection of government and public health.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Rx for Survival" -- A television review of the PBS documentary series "Rx for Survival" in the Nov. 1 Calendar section misidentified as Scottish the couple who founded Riders for Health, which developed a motorcycle ambulance for Gambian villagers. They are English.

Mostly, it focuses its gaze at people on the front lines, typically in the developing world. In "Disease Warriors," airing tonight at 9, UNICEF physicians trying to deliver polio vaccinations to Indian villages compete with Muslim leaders' warnings that the vaccinations cause impotence. In "Rise of the Superbugs," which follows at 10, two doctors trying to combat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Lima, Peru, end up changing official World Health Organization policy on so-called MDR-TB and puncturing the red tape of bringing drugs across international borders.

There are other victories here (the global effort that stopped the SARS outbreak before it claimed more lives, a proactive HIV/AIDS treatment program run by Dr. Ernest Darkoh in Botswana) amid dire warnings of coming health crises.

The war on bacteria is "not a war, it's a holding action," says Dr. Brad Spellberg of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, commenting on new microbes that are proving themselves resistant to antibiotics, here and abroad.

Avian flu, the latest viral threat, doesn't appear in "Rx for Survival" until hour six, by which time the series has established certain themes -- that jet travel has helped globalize viral threats, that pharmaceutical companies are less in the business these days of manufacturing new antibiotics than of coming up with lifestyle remedies in the West, that geography is inexorably connected to healthcare access and awareness.

That last theme permeates "Delivering the Goods," airing Wednesday night at 9. We meet the Scottish couple who develop a motorcycle/ambulance for Gambian villagers, the eccentric Mechai Viravaidya, the government official and "Condom King" hawking contraception amid the sex tourism trade in Thailand, two members of Doctors Without Borders working a chaotic, makeshift clinic in Chad, where they tend to victims of the violence in neighboring Darfur, and a nongovernmental agency in Bangladesh that trains women to become physicians.

Some 20 countries are covered here, and the footage and stories give "Rx for Survival" what many a good drama has -- a sense of sweep.


`Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11 p.m. today, Wednesday, Thursday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Narrator...Brad Pitt

Executive producer: Larry Kline. Senior executive producer, WGBH/NOVA Science Unit: Paula S. Apsell.

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