Diseases 'require global response'

The Nation - Thursday, November 20, 2003

The world is under threat from emerging diseases, and the only way to combat them is through peace and medical cooperation across borders, a visiting Nobel laureate in medicine said yesterday.

Public health is no longer an issue for one country but a matter for the global community, because viruses and bacteria do not recognise borders in our closely interconnected world, said American geneticist Professor Joshua Lederberg in his lecture "Health as an Imperative to Peace and Peace as an Imperative to Health" at Chulalongkorn University.

"Two million passengers travel per day, which makes it predictable to have outbreaks of infectious diseases, common enemies that affect us all, " he said

. Attended by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Lederberg's lecture was part of the "Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace" series organised by the International Peace Foundation, based in Vienna and Bangkok.

Lederberg received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in his early 30s for discovering mechanisms for genetic recombination (the transfer of DNA from one organism to another) in bacteria, which made bacteria a useful tool in genetic research.

He said he thought of peace as a part of socioeconomic development and that a world with good public health, in which people could work hard at producing food and other economic activities, would create peace.

At the same time countries need peaceful relations to combat diseases that are threats to public health, he said.

The genetics expert said ecological breakdowns in many parts of the world from unbalanced development were the major causes of disease outbreaks. He cited Ebola (West Africa and US, 1995), Plague (India, 1996), new influenza (Hong Kong, Japan and US, 1997), West Nile encephalitis (Russia and US, 1999), footandmouth disease (UK, 2001), anthrax (US, 2001), Sars (East Asia, North America and Europe, 2003), and monkey pox (Midwestern US, 2003).

"Why did these things happen?" he asked. "[In spite of our riches] and technical resources, why don't we feel safer?"

He explained that ecological breakdowns made microorganisms mutate rapidly due to synergies between organisms, which coupled with rapid growth cycles enabled them to reproduce a millionfold every 20 minutes.

"Some also argue quite smartly that the disturbance of our natural history may have something to do with emerging asthma in people," he said.

"We need national and global surveillance and genetic informationsharing."

Nantiya Tangwisutijit The Nation