The longstanding struggle between humans and an array of microscopic, disease–bearing viruses intent on killing remains a pitched battle. There are many victims and no end in sight.
Humans have achieved a few decisive victories, the eradication of smallpox most notably, but a host of other viruses—Zika, SARS and Ebola among them—remain relentless and resourceful. They mutate, strike quickly and exploit any weaknesses in the lines of defense. Despite the efforts of dedicated public health professionals, people continue to die, often thousands at a time during a single outbreak.
The stakes in this internecine standoff were outlined Thursday (February 22) by the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to a near capacity audience at the Yale School of Public Health that drew students, faculty, practicing health professionals and alumni.
“There are some really daunting forces,” Anne Schuchat, M.D., told approximately 150 people attending the annual Frank Black Memorial Lecture. “The viruses are five steps ahead of us.”
Schuchat said it remains unclear which side will eventually win. It was just 100 years ago that an influenza pandemic killed nearly 50 million people worldwide and singlehandedly reversed life expectancy by 12 years.
More recently, viruses continue to surprise public health professionals with their strength, speed, versatility and ability to launch surprise attacks—leaving humans baffled and terrified.
In 2003, SARS spread with lighting speed from a Hong Kong hotel to points around Asia and beyond with deadly results for nearly 800 people. With modern airfare, even the most isolated disease can be virtually anywhere in the world within 24 to 36 hours.
Just a few years ago, Ebola ravaged part of Africa where poverty and other factors had weakened the public health infrastructure. The results were devastating, claiming some 11,000 lives. The virus threatened the region’s major urban centers and if not for a robust public health intervention, it might have succeeded.
“It was bad, but it could have been so much worse,” she said.
And then there is the completely unexpected. Shortly after the last Ebola outbreak, a little-known virus—Zika—became a household word overnight. Transmitted primarily by mosquitos, the virus causes a birth defect that has left thousands of newborns in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas with microcephaly. The condition is marked by impaired cognitive development. Schuchat characterized the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the vector of many diseases, including Zika, as “an old foe with new ammo.”
The longstanding matchup between humans and viruses is far from over and if humans are to prevail in the long run, more research and public health training are needed, Schuchat said. “To truly tackle viruses and other health threats, we need to work with the communities that are affected. Where are we going to get the [public health] troops?”
Dean Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., said that Schuchat, who is a veteran of the CDC, has handled the position with “aplomb’” and that she should be appointed director outright. “She is doing a marvelous job.”
Schuchat’s lecture was in honor of the late Frank Black, Ph.D., a member of the Yale School of Public Health faculty from 1955 until his retirement in 1996. He was only the third scientist to use the measles vaccine in humans and pioneered the in-vitro cultivation of the virus and tested the efficacy of measles vaccines in susceptible populations in both the United States and abroad.
Professor Albert Ko, M.D., chair of the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, welcomed members of Black’s family to the lecture and described the scientist as a giant in the field of infectious diseases.