On deadly diseases such as malaria and polio, how new technology will stop them

Written by Staff Writer

What’s your view on deaths from infectious diseases? Too few — just like we do in the world, it seems.

That is just a recent global development. We’ve been focused on life expectancy. So, we’ve become concerned over the last 20 years in the developed world that if we don’t do something to prevent infectious diseases, infectious diseases will take over. That’s just not the case now. If you look at other parts of the world, like Africa, if you look at parts of Latin America, or in parts of Asia — less intensive economies — if they don’t use hygiene as well as we do, when they go to do hygiene, it’s more spread out and it takes more time for things to go away.

Can you talk a little bit about why we’ve reached this sort of breakthrough point in the developing world?

I think, from my perspective, it’s everything: people have more access to the basics of hygiene and sanitation, the soap they need. The water systems are better. Vaccines are better. And we have more educated people and better methods to detect, diagnose and treat diseases.

Why does this equate to better quality of life when infectious diseases like polio or malaria still scare many in the developed world?

I think really the moment was when we ended polio in the 1990s. That’s when people started thinking you can’t stop the most common, deadly diseases in the developing world. Then, when we did the eradication of measles last decade, that’s when people started to say, yes, you can stop these diseases. We’ve found a vaccine — it’s never been 100% effective, but it has been an unbroken effective vaccine for more than 40 years. When we came out with the vaccine against polio, there was not a lot of people in the developed world that agreed with us. Even today, we have 1% of the world’s population that lives in the developed world, who is still hesitant about these new tools.

It’s also still unsafe — is it still acceptable in many parts of the world?

Most people in the developed world live in cities. That’s fine, we don’t need to live that way. But in the developing world, you have urban slums, and if you grow up in a suburb, you can still be exposed to infectious diseases. Yes, we can make everyone in the developed world feel like we are living in a high-tech city but there is still a global need to stop these diseases.

Speaking of technologies, to what extent can human knowledge and technology alone help us on this journey?

Anything we can do to prevent and save human lives is worth it. That’s what I like to hear — that we can change public health through this technology. What has happened in the last 10 years is we have seen how we can make these technologies smarter and more accurate, more reliable and more able to work very well together.

The birth of vaccines? The development of the microscope?

Medicine is the basis of all modern technology, not just medicine, but all modern devices. So, that’s why I like what’s happening with antibiotics — there is a huge opportunity to find vaccines that can cure diseases that antibiotics can’t kill. That’s what we’re trying to do with cell phones — how do you make it possible to have this early detection to figure out what’s happening to the patient?

If the goal is to eradicate diseases like HIV and malaria, are cell phones a big part of the equation?

Absolutely. I think cell phones were the starting point for cell phone companies thinking they might need to provide more services and to include the next evolution of the ability to monitor your health.

What’s the role of a space mission in fighting disease?

In terms of remote, off-Earth monitoring, I think it’s going to be very important because we’re going to use this space to track disease at a greater scale than ever before. Hopefully, one day it’s going to be a diagnostic tool that people use to determine when they are actually going to go to the hospital, which is going to be the more important diagnostic tool. And that could be your microchips that you put on your body that track your progress.

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