It was barely more than half a century ago that the Nobel Prize–winning virologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet mused about the demise of contagions. “To write about infectious disease,” he wrote in 1962, “is almost to write of something that has passed into history.”
If only. In the past several decades, over 300 infectious pathogens have either newly emerged or emerged in new places, causing a steady drumbeat of outbreaks and global pandemic scares.
Over the course of 2016, their exploits reached a crescendo. Just as the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was collapsing in early 2016, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus, newly erupted in the Americas, an international public health emergency. What would balloon into the largest outbreak of yellow fever in Angola in 30 years had just begun. A few months later, scientists reported the just-discovered “superbug” mcr-1 gene in microbes collected from humans and pigs in the United States (SN Online: 5/27/16). The gene allows bacteria to resist the last-ditch antibiotic colistin, bringing us one step closer to a looming era of untreatable infections that would transform the practice of medicine. Its arrival presaged yet another unprecedented event: the convening of the United Nations General Assembly to consider the global problem of antibiotic-resistant bugs. It was only the fourth time over its 70-plus-year history that the assembly had been compelled to consider a health challenge. It’s “huge,” says University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman.But even as UN delegates arrived for their meeting in New York City in September, another dreaded infection was making headlines again. The international community’s decades-long effort to end the transmission of polio had unraveled. In 2015, the WHO had declared Nigeria, one of the three last countries in the world that suffered the infection, free of wild polio. By August 2016, it was back. Millions would have to be vaccinated to keep the infection from establishing a foothold.
Three fundamental, interrelated factors fuel the microbial comeback, experts say. Across the globe, people are abandoning the countryside for life in the city, leading to rapid, unplanned urban expansions. In crowded conditions with limited access to health care and poor sanitation, pathogens like Ebola, Zika and influenza enjoy lush opportunities to spread. With more infections mingling, there are also more opportunities for pathogens to share their virulence genes.
At the same time, global demand for meat has quadrupled over the last five decades by some estimates, driving the spread of industrial livestock farming techniques that can allow benign microbes to become more virulent. The use of colistin in livestock agriculture in China, for example, has been associated with the emergence of mcr-1, which was first discovered during routine surveillance of food animals there. Genetic analyses suggest that siting factory farms full of chickens and pigs in proximity to wild waterfowl has played a role in the emergence of highly virulent strains of avian influenza. Crosses of Asian and North American strains of avian influenza caused the biggest outbreak of animal disease in U.S. history in 2014–2015. Containing that virus required the slaughter of nearly 50 million domesticated birds and cost over $950 million. Worryingly, some strains of avian influenza, such as H5N1, can infect humans.The thickening blanket of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from booming populations of people and livestock provides yet another opportunity for pathogens to exploit. Scientists around the world have documented the movement of disease-carrying creatures including mosquitoes and ticks into new regions in association with newly amenable climatic conditions. Climate scientists predict range changes for bats and other animals as well. As the organisms spread into new ranges, they carry pathogens such as Ebola, Zika and Borrelia burgdorferi (a bacterium responsible for Lyme disease) along with them.
Since we can rarely develop drugs and vaccines fast enough to stanch the most dangerous waves of disease, early detection will be key moving forward. Researchers have developed a welter of models and pilot programs showing how environmental cues such as temperature and precipitation fluctuations and the insights of wildlife and livestock experts can help pinpoint pathogens with pandemic potential before they cause outbreaks in people. Chlorophyll signatures, a proxy for the plankton concentrations that are associated with cholera bacteria, can be detected from satellite data, potentially providing advance notice of cholera outbreaks.
Even social media chatter can be helpful. Innovative financing methods, such as the World Bank’s recently launched Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility — a kind of global pandemic insurance policy funded by donor countries, the reinsurance market and the World Bank — could help ensure that resources to isolate and contain new pathogens are readily available, wherever they take hold. Right now, emerging disease expert Peter Daszak points out, “we wait for epidemics to emerge and then spend billions on developing vaccines and drugs.” The nonprofit organization that Daszak directs, EcoHealth Alliance, is one of a handful that instead aim to detect new pathogens at their source and proactively minimize the risk of their spread.
Burnet died in 1985, two years after the discovery of HIV, one of the first of the latest wave of new pathogens. His vision of a contagion-free society was that of a climber atop a foothill surrounded by peaks, mistakenly thinking he’d reached the summit. The challenge of surviving in a world of pathogens is far from over. In many ways, it’s only just begun.
Sonia Shah is a science journalist and author. Her most recent book is Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond.
This article appears in the December 24, 2016/January 7, 2017 issue with the headline, “Contagions make a comeback: The fight against infectious diseases has entered a new era.”