People are doing more today than ever before in our history that is having a negative impact on our environment. The most worrisome effect of them all is the recent, rapid increase in the number of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Agriculture, land use and development, and mass globalization are all playing significant roles in this recent trend.
Mad cow disease, a form of spongiform encephalopathy, first appeared on the radar of infectious disease in 1984. It is a disease that is caused most often by the ingestion of a species’ own brain matter, or, as was recently discovered, through the ingestion of infected meal. The outbreak in the United Kingdom of the 1980s was caused by the feeding to livestock ground up cattle brains, instead of their regular diet of grains and grasses (Walters, 2003). It was later discovered that mad cow disease was able to jump from dead livestock to those who ate infected meat, causing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is a disease affecting the nervous system ultimately leading to death. Creutzfeldt-Jakob causes dementia, memory loss, changes in personality, and hallucinations, and eventually causes deteriorating motor functions before ending in death (Wikipedia). By altering the natural order of life, creating cannibals out of our livestock instead of allowing them their natural diet of plant life, we are playing Russian roulette with biology. The pathogens already exist that can wreak great havoc on us and we are merely facilitating their growth, mutation, and spread by operating against the grain of nature.
Along the same lines of operating against nature is the issue of antibiotic resistance. “Although some bacterial strains may resist antibiotics naturally, most become resistant because of human overuse of the drug.” (Walters, 2003) The development of penicillin in the late 1920s was hailed as the solution to the issue of bacterial disease. However, over the next seventy years the cure-all drug that once helped revolutionized the fight against infectious diseases would be used for everything from colds to cancer causing bacterial evolution on a scale not seen since the beginning of life on Earth. Today we are at a point where with many of the prevalent diseases that there exist or is the potential to exist a strain which could spread across the world without cure. Hill notes in his Emerging Infectious Diseases that for some diseases, “these antibiotics generally are administered as a cocktail” (Hill, 2006). This problem can most easily be seen, again, in the cattle industry and also in the poultry industry where for decades antibiotics have been injected into animals living in tight quarters with one another to prevent disease and promote quick growth. These combined animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short) are cesspools of disease and filth. The overuse of antibiotics causes the evolution of bacteria to be sped up magnitudes greater than before their implementation, potentially putting us humans further behind the curve than when we started the trend of antibiotic administration.
The first globalization, the movement of people from tribes into civilizations, came with it a great epidemic of disease. The second globalization, of the 17th to 19th century, came with the development of international trade and travel. The third globalization, which we are currently in the middle of, came with the fall of the Soviet Empire in the early nineties which enabled for people and goods to travel internationally, across borders, without delay: In a single day a person can now travel from the United States to Hong Kong and back again, whereas the same trip one hundred years ago would have likely taken months and two hundred years ago years. “History tells us that along with globalization come both disease and social disruption… After thousands of generations, suddenly, in about five generations, human life was transformed” (Hilts, 2005). Diseases now travel from place to place at a rate unheard of one hundred years ago. Strains that would have never stood a chance of meeting before international travel can do so at any time and possibly from their chance meetings create the next superbug, ready to spread across the Earth.
Over the last one hundred years we have developed rapidly as a knowledgeable, wealthy, and healthy species. Through our knowledge, wealth, and health, we have created the technology to help us advance (transportation, medicine, and the efficient use of goods being key). While for the most part we have done a good job continuing to progress forward, we are failing in the key areas that affect our livelihood, our health. We must use our great knowledge and wealth to the betterment of the worlds health, because if the health of the human species fails, than our wealth and knowledge is all attributed for not.
Hill, Stuart. 2006. Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Hilts, Phillip. 2005. Rx for Survival: Why We Must Rise to the Global Health Challenge.
Walters, Mark. 2003. Six Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them.
Wikipedia. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Dec 15 2008.
This article originally written December 15th, 2008 as a final paper for OU IPE 3913 - Human Health, Disease, and the Environment.