Historical epidemiologist Peter Curson says a lot more infectious diseases like SARS will be spreading worldwide in the future due to our underestimation of the power of viruses and bacteria. He says SARS is a monster of man’s own making, along with other new diseases like AIDS and Ebola. Human behavior has created a situation where basically benign infections that exist in the environment or among animals and humans become newly powerful. Eating bush meat started the spread of Ebola in Africa and inadequate sanitary practices spread it; dangerous sexual practices spread AIDS and international travel has spread SARS.
Curson says, “We failed to appreciate fully that disease agents change and modify and mutate?we’ve thought the magic bullet would cure all, like antibiotics.” But instead of being a magic bullet, antibiotics have actually led to the creation of resistant infections. “I believe that the next ten to 15 years will see a substantial increase in infectious disease,” Curson says. “I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more interesting exotic infections.”
Bioterrorism specialists have been watching the progress of SARS for lessons that could be applied to the aftermath of a bioterror attack. “Pathogens do not recognize political boundaries,” says David Heyman, a bioterrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You need a global response to bioterrorism, not just a domestic one. This is a great test case.”
Heyman points out that in the case of bioterrorism, a disease would spread even faster, since terrorists would introduce a pathogen in many locations at the same time. He says, “This is demonstrating how challenging it will be if we have a real attack.”
Scientists have narrowed the suspected SARS viruses to two types, both related to the common cold, which may work together to cause the disease. It’s difficult to treat SARS patients, because there is no effective antiviral medication to combat colds.
SARS not only shows us how to deal with bioterrorism?bioterrorism research may find a cure for the new disease. The Centers for Disease Control has sent SARS virus samples to the Defense Department for screening against antiviral compounds the Pentagon developed as antidotes for biological-warfare agents.
If diseases can be spread by modern travel, maybe we should visit other places only in our dreams.
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