Recently, the United Nations’ international public health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), released its list of the ten greatest threats to global health in 2019. Their list strongly emphasized the continued threat of infectious diseases to public health.
Included in the list were HIV, Dengue, and Ebola – three diseases that most severely affect developing countries whose public health services are often cauterized by famine, war, and internal political strife. However, this list does not let developed countries off the hook; also included was the threat of a global influenza pandemic, reminiscent of the 1918 H1N1 strain that killed an estimated 3-5 percent of the world’s population at the time and ravaged the United States and Europe. Rounding out the infectious disease threats were antimicrobial resistance – which imposes an increasing burden on medical infrastructure in developed countries – and “vaccine hesitancy”, the pseudoscientific belief that has directly contributed to the growing threat of vaccine-preventable measles in Europe.
A case can be made that three of the remaining four threats – “air pollution and climate change”, “fragile and vulnerable settings”, and “weak primary health care” – also directly impact the world’s ability to prevent, detect, and treat infectious diseases. There is robust evidence that air pollution directly contributes to the incidence and severity of lower respiratory infections. Regional instability creates large populations of refugees who are particularly susceptible to disease transmission, and effective primary care is essential to limit the burden of infection in rural populations.
The World Health Organization’s list clearly shows that although the days of widespread smallpox and polio are behind us in the United States, infectious diseases are still at the forefront of global health. It is thus essential to our country that our universities and hospital systems continue to be world leaders in research, training, and patient care to prevent, treat, and mitigate infections.
– Dan Evans Member of the Van Tyne Laboratory