By Dapo Lapite
Illustration by Lizka Vaintrob
The Roman empire, the Mayan Empire, and the Chinese empires. Every single one of these civilizations succumbed to the spread of pathogens, and in today’s world, there is a chance of this disaster repeating. The changing climate and highly advanced modes of international transportation have led to a spread of mosquitoes, ticks, and other organisms carrying dangerous pathogens. Due to the potential spread of an array of diseases, the United States must fund research aimed at finding vaccines, cures, and other medical advances in order to prevent a medical crisis.
It is imperative to examine the history of plagues in order to understand how diseases have impacted civilizations in the past. On average, somewhere in the world, a new infectious disease has “emerged every year for the past 30 years.” Recently, the Ebola crisis indicated what could recur. Ebola became a heavily discussed topic in 1976 when a new illness emerged in Yambuku, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At this time, Jean-Jacques Muyembe was the only virologist in the Congo. Muyembe shipped blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where the scientists then identified the virus. Ebola is a disease that can kill “not just the very young, old, and sick,” but also the strong and fit, by triggering a violent immune response. In 2014, Ebola truly caused mass chaos as hospitals ran out of beds, cities, and coffins.
The best example of the United States’ lack of preparation is the Asian longhorned tick. The Asian longhorned tick is the first invasive tick to spread to the United States in around 80 years. It is native to China, Japan, Russia, and the Korean Peninsula and has also found its way to Australia and New Zealand. In Asia, the tick carries a virus that causes human hemorrhagic fever, which kills around 30 percent of its victims. In 2013, South Korea reported 36 cases and 17 fatalities.
This particular virus is not found in the United States, but it is extremely similar to the Heartland Virus, another life-threatening tick-borne disease cycling through the United States. Diseases spread by ticks are typically underreported. As a result, there are no proven measures that can be used to control several vector-borne diseases transferred by the black-legged tick, which spreads at least seven human pathogens in the United States, including bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
Climate change is increasingly becoming a problem because it is a factor in the emergence of infectious diseases. The warming temperatures make the environment in the United States more hospitable for the ticks and other vectors. And according to the Baylor College of Medicine, as climates warm and habitats are altered, diseases can spread into unforeseen geographic areas. Both ticks and mosquitos are prime examples of species that have expanded their range into regions where they have not been seen. Illness from mosquito, tick, and flea bites “more than tripled” in the United States from 2004 to 2016.
Other parts of the world also fall victim to these diseases through the high amounts of travel taking place. For example, the chikungunya disease, an insect-borne disease, was previously confined to tropical regions around the Indian Ocean. Yet there have been several cases of chikungunya disease imported into the United States by international travelers, including one case in Louisiana. Similarly, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) first appeared in China in 2002 and quickly spread to other countries near China, and it made it as far as Canada because of air travel. Ultimately, SARS infected 8000 people and killed 800 people before an unprecedented global response halted the disease. The major underlying causes of the increase in vector-borne diseases are growing travel, trade, urbanization, population growth, and increasing temperature. The United States is prone to be shortsighted and forgetful when it comes to the influx of diseases and this trend has only continued in recent years.
Currently, if a massive spread of diseases hit the United States, mass panic would ensue due to the lack of preparation and funding. There was a development of vaccines and antimicrobial drugs throughout the last decade that created hope that infectious diseases could be controlled, but there was a realization that infectious diseases continue to emerge and re-emerge. This provides challenges for infectious disease research. At first, it seemed that the United States would aim at acting proactively when they committed one billion dollars to the effort in 2014. But that now looks uncertain; President Trump’s budget for 2019 cut 67 percent from the current annual funding. With less funding, the CDC will be forced to withdraw from several countries, resulting in a loss of jobs and a need for vital medical knowledge in these regions. With all the evidence pointing towards another plague, it is imperative that the United States begin to reinvest in the fight against potential diseases.