2013 : WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

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A leading scientist of the 21st century for Genomic Sciences; Co-Founder, Chairman, Synthetic Genomics, Inc.; Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute; Author, A Life Decoded
What—Me Worry?

As a scientist, an optimist, an atheist and an alpha male I don't worry. As a scientist I explore and seek understanding of the world (s) around me and in me. As an optimist I wake up each morning with a new start on all my endeavors with hope and excitement. As an atheist I know I only have the time between my birth and my death to accomplish something meaningful. As an alpha male I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.

There are many problems confronting humanity including providing enough food, water, housing, medicine and fuel for our ever-expanding population. I firmly believe that only science can provide solutions for these challenges, but the adoption of these ideas will depend on the will of governments and individuals.

I am somewhat of a Libertarian in that I do not want nor need the government to dictate what I can or cannot do in order to guarantee my safety. For example I ride motorcycles, sometimes at high speeds; I have full medical coverage and should not be required by the government to wear a helmet to avoid doing harm to myself if I crash. I actually do wear a helmet, as well as full safety gear, because I choose to protect myself. Smoking is in a different category. Smoking is clearly deleterious to one's health and the single event that a smoker can do to change their medical outcomes is to quit smoking. If that is all there was to it, then the government should not regulate smoking unless it is paying for the health care of the smokers. However, science has clearly shown that second hand smoke can have negative health consequences on individuals in the vicinity of the smoker. Therefore laws and rules to regulate where people can smoke are in my view not only reasonable but are good for society as a whole.

It's the same with vaccinations. One of the consequences of our ever-expanding, global population particularly when coupled with poor public health, unclean water and misuse of antibiotics, has and will be new emerging infections including those from emerging zoonotic outbreaks. Over the past several decades we have seen the emergence of AIDS, SARS, West Nile, new flu strains and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). In 2007 MRSA deaths in the USA surpassed HIV deaths. Infectious disease is now the second cause of death in the world right behind heart disease and ahead of cancer. Last year in the US, there were twice as many deaths from antibiotic resistance than from automobile accidents.

There are many causes for the emergence of infectious diseases but one significant factor is human behavior when it comes to immunizations. The scientifically-proven, false link between immunizations and autism has led to some parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, believing this to be a civil liberty issue akin to the choice to wear a motorcycle helmet. However, I contend that individuals who avoid immunizations are a major contributing factor to the reemergence and spread of infectious disease in a way that is far more dangerous than second hand smoke. Vaccines are the most effective means of prevention the spread of infectious diseases. There are no better examples than the elimination of polio and small pox through mandatory vaccinations.

When new or old infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria can infect the non-immunized, genetic recombination can occur to create new versions of disease agents that can now infect the population that had been immunized against the existing strains. We see this occurring with almost every type of infectious pathogen and most troubling we are seeing it here in our own industrialized, wealthy, educated country. There are pockets of outbreaks of diseases such as whooping cough, the emergence in the Middle East of a novel disease-causing coronavirus; illness at Yosemite National Park caused by Hantavirus; and the emergence in farm communities of a variant influenza virus (H3N2v) that spread from swine to people. This year's flu has come earlier and appears more virulent than in previous years. Boston has recently declared a state of medical emergency because of the number of flu cases and deaths.

Avoidance of vaccination creates a public health hazard. It is not a civil liberty issue. The un-vaccinated coupled with antibiotic resistance and decreased animal habitats promoting zoonotic transfer of disease causing agents is a potential disaster that could take humanity back to the pre-antibiotic era. I thought we learned these lessons after global pandemics such as the Plague and the outbreak of 1918 flu that killed 3% of the population, but clearly without modern science and medicine we will be destined to relive history.