AIDS, influenza and SARS

Chiang Mai Mail - Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Dialogues towards a Culture of Peace series continued at Chiang Mai University (CMU), featuring Prof. Peter C. Doherty, Nobel Laureate for Medicine.

Prof. Doherty, whose current research focuses on aspects of immunity in influenza and AIDS, both being diseases without borders, began by sending out a strong appeal as to preserving the environment. He said, “Manipulating the world for our advantage has created extraordinary selective forces that both impact on other life forms and are beginning to backfire on us.” He mentioned global warming, industrialization with all the negative environmental consequences that accompanied the modern lifestyle. He acknowledged the ‘clean and green’ approaches of Europe which seems to be lacking even in high industrialized countries like the United States.

He spoke on the practice of “fire stick” harvesting in Australia which was used to drive kangaroos onto the spears of the hunters, and which is thought to have shaped both the biology of the Australian eucalypt seeds that germinate following fire, and the nature of the open grasslands. He said it is high time for behavior change as nature has already started to fight back.

From agricultural problems in regards to population size and stabilization, he focused on the consequence of globalization and the internationalization of both e-business and the manufacturing industries. He warned that even if the population size is stabilized, environmental pollution will increase dramatically unless new approaches and technologies are developed and adopted.

But his major point addressed AIDS, influenza and SARS and how the world reacts to it. While some countries still deny it, he said Thailand was a very impressive example as regards the effective response made here to the AIDS pandemic. After the magnitude of the problem was recognized, Thailand rapidly organized itself to limit the spread of the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV). And it has proven that it is possible to promote behavioral change, including the use of condoms.

He highlighted the enormous numbers of deaths from AIDS globally, estimated in 2002 at 3.1 million and approximately 42 million carrying the disease. He said, “The way that HIV works biologically is almost a mirror of the social consequences. AIDS eliminates the helpers and facilitators in society. In Africa, the high mortality rates among school teachers, political leaders, police officers and public officials has had devastating consequences.” He expressed the opinion that the lucky ones were children raised by grandparents, but farmers die before they can pass on the skills needed by the next generation.

He urged his mostly young medical student audience to face the challenges of the 21st century, to become the much needed leaders who facilitate a process of cultural evolution towards equitable, ethical solutions and sustainability.

Sandy Clark