Globalization Goes Viral

Modern man is known to have emerged from hunters and gatherers. But the hunters typically steal the limelight from the gatherers. From the primitive hunters who took down mammoths to the hunters who use rifles to take down deer, from the Crocodile Hunter to Dog the Bounty Hunter, people today still display a fascination with “the hunt,” regardless of what is being hunted. Today, there emerges a new type of hunter: the Virus Hunter.

Nathan Wolfe, the director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, has dedicated his life to hunting and tracking deadly diseases. Wolfe’s work helps to prevent infectious diseases from turning into deadly pandemics. A majority of his work focuses on areas such as central Africa and Asia.

In an interview with NPR, Wolfe explained how seemingly harmless viruses that start in animals can end up being extremely dangerous to humans. “So what happens is you have a particular pig out there and it could get infected with two different viruses – maybe one that’s been in a human and one that’s been in the original reservoir of a bird – and they can mix and match their genes and create mosaic ‘daughter viruses’ that will have completely novel properties,” said Wolfe. And by novel, he means deadly.

But why should a seemingly small outbreak across the world worry us?

The answer is one word: globalization. “If you look now [at air traffic maps] you see basically a plate of spaghetti. There are incredible connections – airlines and boats are moving humans and animals around the globe. The features of globalization have huge consequences for pandemics. It just connects us so much more closely. … And as a consequence, every one of these viruses that passes from animals to humans has the capacity to infect all of us.”

Disease has a long track record when it comes to globalization. Early settlers of America brought numerous diseases with them that Native Americans were not immune to, leading to drastic effects on the Native American population. The same can be said about Hawai‘i.

However, the spread of infectious disease is not a thing of the past. The frequency of outbreaks has increased over the years, mirroring the path of globalization. For instance, West Nile virus is believed to have arrived in America by mosquitoes stowed away in airplane wheel wells. Global agricultural trade in particular has allowed the spread of animal-borne viruses. Combine these factors with an ever increasing and an ever more crowded population, and you have prime conditions for a pandemic.

With viruses constantly evolving and more and more of our food being shipped in from foreign countries, public health needs to be a concern addressed by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In the 1999 conference, officials agreed “to efficiently link together food production, food processing and consumption to meet the food needs of our people as an essential part of achieving sustainable growth, equitable development and stability in the APEC region.” In May 2011, APEC held the third Food Safety Incident Management Workshop and concluded that “there is significant preparedness and goodwill from government and industry to work together in a true partnership approach to improve the APEC region’s capacity to deal with emerging food safety issues and resultant food safety incidents.”

However, APEC should strive to achieve more than this when it comes to food safety. APEC should seek continual improvement in preventing the spread of harmful diseases. Even those who may only look at things in dollar signs must admit that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. Public health is an investment in the productivity of a nation, and APEC should not forget that.

Read the Ka Leo version here.

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