Epidemiologist: Infectious diseases pose increasing threat

Joel Sawyer

Infectious diseases, such as AIDS, cholera and tuberculosis, pose a serious threat to the world’s population, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, one of the state’s top public health officials.
Osterholm, the state epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, told a crowd of more than 100 on Thursday in Mayo Auditorium that infectious diseases once thought to be controlled are back, and again present a danger.
The onslaught of infectious diseases that are attacking populations all over the world are “not just a rehash of old bugs,” Osterholm said, buqt a dramatic change “in what bugs are doing and how they’re doing it.”
Osterholm, a University adjunct professor of epidemiology, traced recent outbreaks of food-borne infectious diseases, cholera, influenza and AIDS to a variety of causes.
These causes include disease adaptation and resistance, social events, changes in food production, human behavior and declining medical resources.
Perhaps the greatest threat to infectious disease containment, Osterholm said, is disease strains that adapt and resist drugs commonly used to treat them. “We’re running out of drugs to use,” he said.
Social conditions such as urban decay and economic impoverishment in third-world countries are also contributing factors to the spread of infectious diseases, Osterholm said.
“If you want to amplify human infectious diseases, make more people and put them in the kinds of slum conditions,” he said.
Osterholm said the world’s food supply is also a major risk factor. “I’m very sad to say … that the biological safety of our food supply is at an all-time low,” he said.
The majority of the United States’ produce comes from developing countries where, Osterholm said, infectious diseases run rampant.
A recent outbreak of intestinal infection that afflicted over 1,000 people was traced to raspberries imported from Guatemala.
Human behavior is also a major factor in the spread of infectious disease, Osterholm said. “We still know more about the sex lives of white tailed deer than we do humans,” he said.
Osterholm said the government is not doing enough to combat the spread of infectious disease. “I see a lot of talk, but not much action,” he said.
The only way to stop the spread of these diseases is to increase funding for world public-health resources, Osterholm said. He added that these resources are woefully underfunded and understaffed.
He said the current outbreak of diphtheria in the former Soviet Union can be blamed on the collapse of child and adult immunization programs available.
Osterholm said the public has to get involved. Public support is essential, he said, to solve problems like the spread of food-borne diseases.
The majority of diseases carried in food could be eliminated by food irradiation, which uses radiation to kill bacteria in foods, Osterholm said. “We could do it tomorrow,” he said, but the public is not accustomed to radiation-exposed food.