Royal Society Publishing

Environmental and social influences on emerging infectious diseases: past, present and future

A. J. McMichael


During the processes of human population dispersal around the world over the past 50 000–100 000 years, along with associated cultural evolution and inter–population contact and conflict, there have been several major transitions in the relationships of Homo sapiens with the natural world, animate and inanimate. Each of these transitions has resulted in the emergence of new or unfamiliar infectious diseases.

The three great historical transitions since the initial advent of agriculture and livestock herding, from ca. 10 000 years ago, occurred when: (i) early agrarian–based settlements enabled sylvatic enzootic microbes to make contact with Homo sapiens; (ii) early Eurasian civilizations (such as the Greek and Roman empires, China and south Asia) came into military and commercial contact, ca. 3000–2000 years ago, swapping their dominant infections; and (iii) European expansionism, over the past five centuries, caused the transoceanic spread of often lethal infectious diseases. This latter transition is best known in relation to the conquest of the Americas by Spanish conquistadores, when the inadvertent spread of measles, smallpox and influenza devastated the Amerindian populations.

Today, we are living through the fourth of these great transitional periods. The contemporary spread and increased lability of various infectious diseases, new and old, reflect the combined and increasingly widespread impacts of demographic, environmental, behavioural, technological and other rapid changes in human ecology. Modern clinical medicine has, via blood transfusion, organ transplantation, and the use of hypodermic syringes, created new opportunities for microbes. These have contributed to the rising iatrogenic problems of hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS and several other viral infections. Meanwhile, the injudicious use of antibiotics has been a rare instance of human action actually increasing ‘biodiversity’.

Another aspect of this fourth transition is that modern hyper–hygienic living restricts microbial exposure in early life. This, in the 1950s, may have contributed to an epidemic of more serious, disabling, poliomyelitis, affecting older children than those affected in earlier, more endemic decades.

As with previous human–microbe transitions, a new equilibrial state may lie ahead. However, it certainly will not entail a world free of infectious diseases. Any mature, sustainable, human ecology must come to terms with both the need for, and the needs of, the microbial species that help to make up the interdependent system of life on Earth. Humans and microbes are not ‘at war’; rather, both parties are engaged in amoral, self–interested, coevolutionary struggle. We need to understand better, and therefore anticipate, the dynamics of that process.