Infectious disease is the modern equivalent of poverty. Since the dawn of the modern economy and global trade in the 18th century, infectious disease has become one of the dominant threats to our livelihoods. The threat is always similar to that of a disease: any individual or group susceptible to an infectious pathogen. Public health agencies and manufacturers of household products, clothing, or food — it doesn’t matter. When an individual or group of individuals becomes infected, they, or they alone, need protection. A disease will not be eradicated simply because the disease has been made obsolete by new technology or by technological developments that don’t kill it. We respond to and prevent it by using new tools, methods, and treatments.
Public health agencies and manufacturers of household products, clothing, or food need protection against their own viral and bacterial infections. The goal of biomedical research is to deliver drugs and vaccines to prevent disease and therefore protect against infection, including smallpox, HIV, influenza, and, most recently, Petya.
What matters most is preventing the infection from infecting the first thing we touch — our fingernails, hands, and mouths — but that won’t be possible for anyone until a product is delivered by a manufacturer.
But this isn’t just about health care, nor about food, clothing, or homes — this is about the whole globe. In a world of massive populations and economies, diseases can travel far and wide. Following the spread of the H1N1 virus, most thought it was harmless, and many thought that, if we were lucky, it wouldn’t go so far. But at various points it caused extensive hospitalizations and some deaths.
At some point following the Petya outbreak, there were reports of Russian tennis players complaining about their experience at a tournament being interrupted by their cellphones. Even though they had no connection to the case, this showed the potential for contagion. Had these players become infected, they could have infected many others and led to a larger-scale outbreak.
The infection is transmitted to an individual or group through bodily fluids. This means that when food, clothing, or human milk is contaminated by microbes, it can touch the hands of an individual who has infected them, then go into a person’s mouth and/or nose and then get into their mouth.
If a disease is transmitted through food, it can be brought to the home or hotel room of a restaurant customer. New York City restaurants have to meet certain requirements to create foods that can be eaten raw. If a bug is present, the restaurant is obligated to stop serving a dish at least half an hour before the person can feel the discomfort of diarrhea. Some schools are screening for diseases like lead poisoning before students leave, for example.
Even if we avoid contact with a food-borne infection, others can still get their hands on it. When you eat a tainted food, you may not become sick, but another person will. Perhaps a chain of clients finishes eating at a particular restaurant. Or, many of us saw the terrifying news of a restaurant worker giving Ebola to customers. These dangers are not small, and it is difficult to detect early enough for the injured person to be treated. Many hospitals now don’t take money if you’re infected.
Until newer technologies, used to achieve therapeutic objectives, are invented, we cannot overcome public health risks. We also have to develop new methods to prevent them.