Probably the number-one health story in the United States is the HIV outbreak in Scott County. I think the reason Scott County hit such a national chord is because people think the same thing has already happened in other areas; this is just the first one, thanks to testing, that we know about.
Diseases like MRSA and Ebola make the headlines constantly. Should the average person be concerned?
A lot of things that keep coming up, such as bird flu, have never affected large numbers in the U.S. But you couldn’t tell from the media coverage. Recently, a giant poll of the public revealed that Ebola was the number-three health concern. Well, there have been four cases in the United States. Highly antibiotic-resistant organisms like CRE have become a bigger problem, but it’s primarily in a subset of patients who have been in nursing homes. It’s not a common thing we see in a normal, healthy population.
Are we making progress against infectious diseases?
There’s a lot of good news. Hepatitis C is one of the amazing success stories. This is one of the few chronic viral infections that we can now cure. The old treatments were lengthy, toxic, and didn’t work well. The current treatments for most hep C cases are eight-week courses of a single pill with no side effects and cure rates of 95 percent. Also, HIV drugs are allowing people who use them to basically live a normal life expectancy. Finally, new tests are making it possible to diagnose infections far more quickly.
Could we ever conquer infectious disease?
Individual diseases? Yes. Are we going to conquer bacteria? Absolutely not. Infectious disease responds to environmental and societal changes. With global warming, we’re seeing things in the United States that we never used to have, like dengue fever. And as the heroin epidemic continues to unfold in the Midwest, we’re seeing new infectious disease complications. The war goes on.