Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The coming plague?

The current issue of the journal Nature has a sobering series of articles on the potential bird flu pandemic brewing up in Asia, for which the world is poorly prepared.

Medicine Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg once observed: "We are in an eternal competition. We have beaten out virtually every other species to the point where we may now talk about protecting our former predators. But we're not alone at the top of the food chain." He was talking, of course, about invisible pathogens.

Fourteenth-century visitations of the black death killed one-third of Europe's population. The great flu pandemic of 1918 killed 40 million people worldwide. Tens of millions of people are currently infected by HIV. "Nature is not benign," Lederberg reminded us.

Unfortunately, the public health workers on the front lines of disease must contend not only with microbes but also with apathetic or stingy governments, entrenched bureaucracies, rapacious warlords, warring tribes, and religious taboos and ignorance.