How do we prepare for the threat of disease in a flat
world? Interconnectedness can make us more vulnerable to diseases like West
Nile, Hanta, and influenza viruses from all over the world.
In the past few years it seems a rash of unusual diseases has begun to
threaten us. These diseases scare us because they seem so alien and yet they are
right here among us: Monkey Pox, SARS, West Nile. These new illnesses are all
viruses. It's as though the tropical wilderness has entered into our backyards.
And they are all zoonotic diseases, ones that normally living in animals
and have somehow jumped into people. In today's interconnected world we are just
a plane flight away from the tropical wilderness.
In 1999, a deadly disease emerged in the US that had never been seen before in
the Western Hemisphere. It was West Nile virus.
Nobody had even remotely imagined West Nile coming to the United States. I mean
here is, is a disease, its entire ecology involves the Nile, Sudan, upper Egypt,
swamp lands, a very specific set of birds and mosquitos
that ecology. No one could have imagined it could emerge in the concrete jungle
of Manhattan, and Queens, and become a problem that now is seen in almost every
single state in the United States. And carried by indigenous mosquitos and
Partly because it was so unexpected, West Nile proved difficult to identify. It
began with a rash of encephalitis cases in New York, then hundreds
of dead crows began to appear, but it took time to connect the two.
It's one of the problems in zoonotic diseases: who is in charge. The public
health people, the doctors, if you will, are entirely separated from the animal
health people in most states and certainly in the Federal Government, the
entirely different agencies deal with this. So zoonotic diseases that pose US
human health risks are potential big problems.
In 2002, West Nile killed 284 people in the US, mostly elderly, very young or
with weakened immune systems. Fortunately, the odds of catching it are small.
Eventually people will become immune. The disease has a complicated ecology. Its
main targets are birds, humans and horses. It's also been found in alligators.
No one knows why humans and these animals are singled out. It's spread by
mosquitos. The mosquito is like a flying contaminated syringe. They
spread numerous diseases and one of them could even have brought West Nile to
the US. All it takes is an infected bug to stow away on an international
flight. But how do you control the importation of diseases when everyday over a
half million people enter the US. Anyone of whom could be infected.
You know the battle against infectious diseases is like a guerilla
warfare. You think you have it whipped and somebody jumps up and something new
happens. The, the bug mutates, there is a new recombination of genetic
information. It's endless. We will never defeat all the microbes on this planet.
It will be a continuous war for the next millennium. As a result, we'd better
approach it in a different way. This is not like finding a cure for cancer. This
is a war that we will never win. I hope we never lose. But we are gonna have to
fight for time into the future.