Skip to main content
No. 1014:
War on Disease

Today, total war proves to be a dangerous business. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My class and I have been looking at the bubonic plague. It was the largest slaughter the human race has ever experienced, but it may not've been the worst. The combination of disease and genocide brought to North America by 16th-century explorers and conquerors didn't kill as many people as the plague. But it killed a greater fraction of one continent's population. Whole races vanished from parts of the Caribbean.

European disease, which fell upon the original population like a terrible hammer, was inflicted innocently, since we understood nothing about disease. But the awful corollary is that our ignorance might still be capable of terrible damage. So now a group from Harvard looks at what we call "new diseases" -- AIDS, Legionnaire's disease.

Many "new" diseases are quite old. Black lung was with us for years. It simply had no one to speak for it. Appalachian miners had no voice. Chronic fatigue syndrome isn't new, only we used to tolerate it. Highly contagious diseases that're only latent for a short time tend to stay isolated. Only small groups know they're there.

Other new diseases are mutations of older ones, brought on by changing population dynamics and environments. Growing coastal algae blooms have been enriched by sewage from land and from ships. They form stew pots, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. Bacteria grow in abundance, spread, and mutate as well.

As late as the mid-70s we thought our long struggle with infectious disease was almost over -- that antibiotics and hygiene had triumphed. Then whole new strains started popping up, and old diseases reemerged. Suddenly an awful truth came home to us:

On the one hand, a disease can only kill a population by wiping it out all at once. Bubonic plague failed to do that in the 14th century, and humankind came back stronger than ever. Only in the 16th and 17th-century Americas did brutality and disease do enough damage that the native population never could fully recover. Yet it did survive.

Now we turn about and try to exterminate harmful microorganisms. We have killed smallpox. And polio seems to be doomed. But lower life forms are sophisticated. What our chemical assaults have done, over and over, is to create new strains of germs and of insects as well.

We needn't be very clever to see grim analogies -- the war on cancer, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on cockroaches. Total war rarely succeeds. It is unwelcome news, but what we need to do is devise complex and mixed strategies. We need to be patient, to be subtle, and to speak the language of compromise -- when we fight any of our worst enemies.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Levins, R., et al. (10 authors), The Emergence of New Diseases. American Scientist, Vol. 82, January-February, 1994, pp. 52-60.

I am grateful to Tom DeGregori, UH Economics Department, Robert Hazelwood, UH Biology Department, and Thomas W. McConn, UH History Department, for their counsel.