Viral Infection Emerging
by David Bradley
This briefing document was prepared for the UK's Royal Society in 2004, but its message seems just as relevant given the current warnings regarding avian flu and the allegedly imminent flu pandemic. Immediately after the RS meeting, outbreaks of avian H5N1 disease were reported in a number of countries including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China, and Indonesia. Human cases had also been reported in Thailand, but the concern is whether human disease is been missed elsewhere. In 2005, this avian virus still poses a serious threat to human health and is one with significant implications for animal production and economies. The long-term, global implications are only just being considered. Should this incredibly virulent strain avian flu transcend the species barrier and become infectious between people we could be facing a disease far worse than SARS.
We are facing more and more emerging infections partly because of international travel and rising population densities. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the winter of 2002-2003 was just a single example that has taught the international medical community, researchers, and policy makers lessons we must learn if we are to fight new, emergent infectious agents. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not afflicted with the likes of measles, mumps, and chicken pox. These diseases emerged as people moved more from place to place and populations rose. Environmental change too means the world has become the perfect culture medium for new pathogens.
We have, of course, benefited from two decades of disease research stimulated by HIV but we simply cannot predict the next new pathogen and must improve our understanding of spreading diseases if we are to face the next threat. Issues of preparedness, medical ethics, and civil liberties must be addressed urgently before the successor to SARS emerges.
Read David Bradley's Report from Session 1: on how we can never conquer infectious diseases