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

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

Ending the War Metaphor: The Changing Agenda for Unraveling the Host-Microbe Relationship—Workshop Summary (2006)

For several centuries, humans have been at war with microbial pathogens, researching and creating new drugs and therapies and changing living habits to avoid and destroy these disease-causing agents. Yet infectious disease continues to be the leading cause of death on the planet. Pathogens are developing resistance to drugs at an alarmingly high rate and humans are struggling to adequately arm themselves for this war. Part of the problem is that the war metaphor itself is not working anymore, and scientists, policy makers, and lay people could be more effective in the pursuit of health if microbes were approached as allies that can contribute to bodily well-being. In March of 2005, the Institute of Medicine's Forum on Microbial Threats hosted a workshop in which participants examined the current “us versus them” approach to dealing with infectious disease, presenting cases that illustrate the complexity of the host-microbe relationship and proposing alternate lenses through which to look at these relationships that are more helpful than the overly simplistic war metaphor. Participants used examples of microbial systems in the gut to illustrate the diversity and complexity of microbial communities, their ecosystems, and their relationships to the host. They discussed the interactions between various types of microorganisms within these microscopic communities, and the potential for humans to work with these microbial “allies” to promote health. Ending the War Metaphor is a summary of this workshop.

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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.