The title of this article reads like a pandemic horror story. It seems like every few months another disease crops up somewhere in the world that threatens to brings society to its knees. Why is this happening? What can we do to stop it?
The cause of all of these diseases is surprisingly simple: evolution. H1N1 is a virus that has been sickening pigs for ages. Back in 2009, a variant of H1N1 developed a random mutation that allowed it to infect humans. People in close contact were afflicted first and the illness spread from there.
MRSA is the acronym for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus is a strain of bacteria that can infect humans. Methicillin is a common antibiotic that is closely related to the better-known penicillin. MRSA is nothing more than a strain of bacteria that has developed resistance to modern antibiotic drugs.
MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a virus that has recently crossed-over from bats to humans by the same mechanism: evolution. It is just now starting to crop up in the United States. Other diseases that have created public hearth emergencies by the result of a mutation include HIV/AIDS, ebola, H5N1, malaria and the Black Plague.
The common denominator among all of these diseases is that we have no way to treat them and they have a documented propensity to evade any treatments that are discovered. For a disease that first makes the jump over to humans, modern medicine will have no drugs available to treat the illness. Until a treatment is discovered, the billion dollar healthcare industry is forced to sit back and allow the disease to pursue its natural course.
When a treatment is found, the threat of resistance looms constantly. If a drug for MERS is found tomorrow that cures 99% of cases, then 99% of the MERS viral population will die off with consistent treatment. The 1% with resistance to the treatment will flourish and become the new status quo for MERS: now with resistance to our treatment.
Another treatment can be developed, but it, too, will eventually be subject to the same fate. Medicine is in a constant arms race against evolution: how can we create drugs faster than resistance can evolve? What happens if we run out of reasonable drug targets for a specific disease?
The year is 2014. We all well over a decade into the 21st Century. Despite cars that can drive themselves and robots that can perform brain surgery evolution is threatening to bring modern medicine back into the stone ages. Without action, the 21st Century may be one of surgical masks and constant fear. Can we keep up?