From Black Plague to Ebola, a panel of microbiologists, immunologists and clinicians discussed the problems of emerging infectious diseases
from biological warfare to drug resistance on 16 March 2015, Cardiff University.
Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases represent the most important threat to humans. The 1918-19 Flu Pandemic killed more people than the Great War. Even now when we benefit daily from advances in medicine, it is still a matter of when, not if, the next infectious disease pandemic hits.
Vaccination is undoubtedly a cornerstone of modern health, and yet it is easy to take preventive medicine for granted in the developed world. Failure to educate people about the importance of individual vaccine uptake results in communities failing to achieve herd immunity that benefits all. Equally, the misuse of antibiotics is partly due to failed education programmes. Medics are still being pressurized into over prescribing antibiotics for respiratory infections (95% of which are viral). But this is a drop in the ocean compared with the wide scale misuse of antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture, where drugs are used routinely for improving yields rather than as an actual treatment. The growing human population demands increased food production and anything to reduce costs and increase productivity is favoured, even though in the long term this is likely to compromise our ability to treat infections.
Drug development is driven by economics and disease prevention is often inhibited by politics. Recently, we have ‘sat on our laurels’ with regard to the drive for drug discovery. Perhaps, not surprising considering it typically costs $1 billion dollars for a single new drug to reach the market, and drugs won’t ever reach the market if they are deemed to target unprofitable diseases. Malaria is preventable but it is not a priority. Ebola only became a priority when it moved “Out of Africa”.
Tackling infectious diseases clearly remains the greatest challenge for researchers. But let’s remember to some of those old adages from Victoria times. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away“ being more effective than statins. “You eat a peck of dirt before you die” to stimulate the immune response, reducing the chances of auto-immune diseases. This takes us into the realms of disease evolution and the philosophical debate of infectious diseases benefiting society by limiting population growth – a topic perhaps for the next meeting of the Society of Biology (http://www.societyofbiology.org)?