The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

Sao Paulo, Brazil, a modern megacity.

Credit: iStockphoto

Globalization

 
Today’s world is a global village, with growing concentrations of people in huge cities, mass migrations forced by social or economic pressures, and accelerating commerce and travel. An estimated 1.8 million airline passengers cross international borders daily, creating routes by which human infections can radiate around the world within hours. The crates and containers in which goods are shipped worldwide provide safe passage for disease vectors and animal pathogens. 
The 2009 “swine flu” pandemic starkly illustrated the impact of globalization and air travel on the movement of infectious diseases—with the infection spreading to 30 countries within 6 weeks.
Building roads in previously roadless areas brings people into contact with new environments and potentially new pathogens. Cruise ship travel has increased, bringing together—often in confined spaces— thousands of people from diverse geographic regions (including countries with immunization requirements that differ significantly from those of the various sites where ships disembark). And as adventure travelers intrude on new environments and make contact with exotic wildlife, they may encounter microbes that have never before been recognized as human pathogens.
 
In this rapidly shifting and interconnected world, infectious agents continually find new niches. The 2009 “swine flu” pandemic starkly illustrated the impact of globalization and air travel on the movement of infectious diseases—with the infection spreading to 30 countries within 6 weeks and to more than 190 countries and territories within months.
 
The movement of people around the globe, depicted here in a map of air traffic among the 500 largest international airports, can lead to the rapid spread of infectious disease. (Reprinted with permission from L. Hufnagle, D. Brockmann, and T. Geisel. Copyright 2004 National Academy of Sciences.)

The movement of people around the globe, depicted here in a map of air traffic among the 500 largest international airports, can lead to the rapid spread of infectious disease.

Reprinted with permission from L. Hufnagle, D. Brockmann, and T. Geisel. Copyright 2004 National Academy of Sciences.

 
The human population is undergoing a mass migration from the countryside to “megacities.” Throughout history, big cities have been great incubators of infections—with outbreaks of respiratory, gastrointestinal, meningeal, and skin infections becoming common in crowded urban settings. Substandard housing and inadequate sewage and water management systems incubate disease vectors such as mosquitoes and rats. Poor access to health care services worsens the spread of infection.
 
Globalization of the food supply has spread disease caused by bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. The United States, for example, imports about 20 percent of its fresh vegetables, 50 percent of its fresh fruits, and more than 80 percent of its fish and seafood. As wealthy nations demand such foods year-round, the increasing reliance on producers abroad means that food may be contaminated during harvesting, storage, processing, and transport—long before it reaches overseas markets.
 
Food is not the only globally traded product to set off waves of infection. In 1999 the fungus Cryptococcus gattii emerged on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, causing a growing epidemic of human and animal infections and deaths. It has since spread to the Pacific Northwestern United States. The fungus, which causes deadly infections of the lung and brain, had previously been found only in tropical or subtropical climates in such regions as Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. The exact origins of this outbreak remain a mystery, but some researchers suggest that the fungus may have been introduced through the importation of contaminated trees, shoes, wooden pallets, or shipping crates.

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Disease Watchlist

What do you know about infectious disease?

True or False: The only way public health agencies can deal with infectious disease is to have good surveillance in place, wait for an outbreak to happen in a human population, and then rush to contain it.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    By identifying pathogens in the animals where they naturally live and monitoring those organisms as they move from animals into people, it may be possible to prevent deadly new infections of animal origin from entering and racing through human populations.

  • Correct!

    By identifying pathogens in the animals where they naturally live and monitoring those organisms as they move from animals into people, it may be possible to prevent deadly new infections of animal origin from entering and racing through human populations.

Infectious Disease Defined

Pathogen

A biological agent that causes disease.

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