Queue of people in an airport

Fighting infections

How and why might we overcome infectious diseases?

One of the reasons that infections are so frightening is the speed with which they can kill. Doctors dealing with human cases of avian flu in the Far East have seen their patients worsen dramatically and die within a day. Add to that the risk in an era of global travel of infectious diseases spreading rapidly from one country to another and emerging infections can seem truly terrifying.

In the West we have had some success in dealing with infectious diseases. With vaccines and antibiotics we have had the tools to keep them at bay. In the case of smallpox we have even managed to eradicate one of them completely.

In fact, smallpox may come to be seen as the high water mark of our campaign against infectious disease. It is now clear that we are constantly going to face new threats – and that old threats may return with a vengeance. Animals of all kinds remain the most likely source of new human infections. This is the era of emerging and re-emerging infections: HIV, ever-deadlier forms of tuberculosis (TB), antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Ebola and avian flu. In Europe the threat of malaria and other tropical diseases looms large as exotic mosquitoes spread due to warmer temperatures.

The focus now is not so much on eradication as on control or management: How do we stop new diseases emerging, or re-emerging infections getting out of hand? How do we protect everyone equally in a world of global economic imbalance, where countries vary greatly in the resources they can put into fighting disease? And how do we balance individual rights with the need to protect public health?

Lead image:

Dave Sag/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Epidemics’ in September 2007 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Immunology, Medicine, Health, infection and disease
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development