More People, More Diseases

Don't tread on me

Photo credit: forklift

We always had a sneaking suspicion that the human race was a raging cesspool. (Some people we know prove this theory more than others.) Apparently, the experts agree: Explosive population growth, intensive agricultural practices, and changes in sexual behavior are a breeding ground for an "unprecedented number" of emerging diseases, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

A new disease is rearing its ugly head every year, according to the U.N. health agency. We've already encountered 39 new pathogens that were unknown only a generation ago, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS. And with an estimated 2.1 billion air passengers jetsetting across the globe in the past year alone, infectious diseases are spreading faster than before. An outbreak or epidemic in one part of the world is only hours away from being a threat in another.

But hang on, couldn't advances in science account for the new pathogen discoveries?Dr. Mike Ryan, a WHO epidemics expert, says changes in human behavior and practices are responsible for these new diseases. "We've seen a shift in trend that reflects a transition of human civilization," Ryan says. "The relationship to the animal kingdom, our travel, our sexual and other behaviors have changed the nature of our relationship with the microbial world and the result of that is the emergence of new pathogens and the spread of those pathogens around the world."

Increasingly intensive poultry farming, which could have resulted in the global spread of bird flu, accounts for some of the changes affecting human health, says Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general at WHO. "It should not come as a surprise that we are seeing more and more disease outbreaks coming from the animal sector," Chan says. She noted that the majority of the 39 new diseases came from animals, including Ebola, SARS, and, of course, bird flu.

In WHO's annual report, the organization urges countries to help develop vaccines and tighten domestic efforts to combat outbreaks of disease. The report also makes a case for new, tighter International Health regulations that provide the basis for international cooperation.

With everyone so busy honing their biological-weapons arsenals, however, we're not sure when these kumbaya sessions will actually occur. Unlike actual people, there are, after all, only so many hours in a day. ::AP/LOHAS

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