The Challenge of Emerging Infectious Diseases

Dr. John Cahill discusses some of the challenges we face with infectious diseases that are constantly emerging and changing. SARS is an example of a virus that until several years ago, we had never heard about. So the possibility of new viruses emerging is a very real threat. Another challenge we face is bacteria evolving and growing resistant to antibiotics. It's becoming a huge problem in the developed world where we take antibiotics for granted. Doctors are constantly prescribing antibiotics and patients routinely expect to receive them for any number of minor infections. This gross distribution of antibiotics has contributed to the formation of "superbugs" that are resistant to the antibiotics we typically use. The reality is that we don't have the technology or the resources to continue developing the drugs needed to fight off all these mutations and resistance strains that keep developing.

We've heard a lot of about MRSA (or staff infections) in the news lately, and ten years ago, this was a problem limited only to intensive care units in hospitals. Now it's becoming a community problem, particularly in urban environments, where we're seeing up to a third of people carry drug resistant MRSA as a cause for infection.

The antibiotics we would normally use do not work against MRSA. Luckily, we do have some that do. But these bacteria are smart, and will continue to find ways to survive. These organisms lived long before human beings came into existence and they will likely outlive us long into the future. Many of the challenges we face with infectious diseases are caused by giving antibiotics inappropriately.

Dr. John D. Cahill, M.D. is a physician and medical educator who founded the Center for Global Collaboration & Health Initiatives. While studying abroad in medical school and after his postgraduate medical training at Brown University, Dr. Cahill spent time in Southeast Asia & Africa.


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