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The history of infectious disease: an overview and warning
Published on January 31, 2022 30 min
A selection of talks on Infectious Diseases
An introduction to the world of microbes
- Dr. David Westenberg
- Missouri University of Science and Technology, USA
Hi, I'm Betty Smocovitis. I'm Professor of the History of Science in the Departments of Biology and History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.
What I want to do today is to bring two areas together; history and biology, in the way of offering an overview and then a warning about pandemics, and in particular the COVID-19 pandemic, which is our current predicament. The two don't appear to have much in common at first glance. Yet when it comes to infectious disease, the two can help us gain insights into one of the most destructive forces in human history; infectious disease. Indeed, as I show in this lecture today, the study of the long history of infectious disease shows us the patterns and the processes that can help us understand infectious disease in terms of ecology and evolution. Pathogens do evolve rapidly. They adapt to novel ecological circumstances in what becomes an 'evolutionary arms race'. We may come up with defenses, yet pathogens come up with their own. A tragic fact proven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown us how rapidly, new, more infectious and possibly more virulent, variants have emerged.
Viruses now pose one of the biggest threats to humanity. Indeed, some scientists, like the Nobel Prize-winning microbial geneticist Joshua Lederberg, have argued that viruses are the single biggest threat to humanity. At this point, we know a great deal about the history and biology of infectious disease. We can draw not only on the usual conventional historical records, such as diaries, eyewitness testimonials and correspondence, but also medical records, statistical data, archaeological evidence, and even newer techniques, such as genomic analysis. We also know a great deal about the biology of microbial life. It's stunning diversity and the complex processes of evolution grounded in the genetics of mutation and recombination that they display. These give microbes a terrifying ability to adapt to and exploit new environments, as well as new bodies, in rapid time. If we bring biology and history together creatively yet carefully, we may gain not only a better understanding of pandemics like COVID-19 but also design more effective tools for prevention, surveillance, management and control.