That time of year has come around once again. The weather grows dreary and the rain starts to feel never ending. As we battle the elements on our trek back from lectures we feel a resurgence of fresher’s flu that we hoped was gone for good. We look back with longing at happier times when we were not plagued with coughs and sniffles, and wonder how long it will be before science and medicine make the breakthroughs necessary to prevent our dire suffering. But what would happen to the world if all contagious disease is eradicated?
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With the advent of vaccinations, many diseases such as polio, measles, and smallpox, have already become horrors of the past. Thousands of lives are saved every year because of this and with great strides being made towards developing vaccines for more diseases, perhaps soon we will be risk free.
Diseases that are most common, such as colds and influenza, are especially difficult to prevent as new strains evolve rapidly. Thus, the NHS advises that anyone with a weakened immune system have a flu shot every year. Another hurdle in disease prevention comes from the frighteningly growing popularity of anti-vax and “natural healing” ideologies, which may limit the effect of herd immunity.
Suppose, however, that all infectious disease was eradicated. This would undeniably have countless benefits. But are there any new risks that would emerge once the world is saved? Some diseases are believed to have played a role in human evolution. ‘Survival of the fittest’ lead to humans with the strongest immune systems being the ones passing on their genes to the next generation. Once diseases have been completely eradicated, there would be no more need for vaccinations, so with no exposure to pathogens, will our immune systems become fragile? If this were true, and a new strain of disease was to suddenly emerge, the entire human population would be vulnerable and the results might be catastrophic.
Yet the greatest danger would arrive much sooner. Earth’s population is already rising at a staggering 80 million people a year. If all contagious diseases were to suddenly disappear, human numbers would skyrocket. Resources are already becoming scarce and in our pursuit for more we have set about a devastating (and by now inevitable) change to our planet. For many years now, there have been plans to start colonies on Mars or on orbiting satellites, but the technology required is still in the process of being developed. Humanity may outgrow itself before it has a chance to spread out.
The competition for resources is a driving factor in another tragedy that may befall our species. The demand for food will escalate, causing a proportional increase in the value of land, which may lead to more frequent international conflicts. On a more local scale, rising food and property prices will widen the rift between those who have and those who haven’t.
When we can eradicate disease, we humans will become the ideal species – we will have made ourselves almost perfectly adapted to our environment. After that we would quickly grow beyond our ‘means of subsistence’, like a bacteria culture that outgrows its petri dish. Perhaps we ourselves aren’t that different from the pathogens we seek to eliminate…