November 09, 2011

Stephen Colbert talks emerging diseases

Policy and Advocacy Officer

Last week, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, Stanford biology professor and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI) joined Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report to discuss GVFI’s work in developing a system to detect future pandemics before they happen.

GVFI focuses on monitoring infectious diseases that could ‘jump’ from animals to humans in the future, and maintains field sites in more than fifteen countries. Through its research, GVFI has created a pilot global early warning system for new diseases.

During the interview, Colbert described how his 91-year old mother used to decide as a child whether or not to go to school each year based on whether polio was present in her community at the time, and questioned whether that scenario could happen again. Polio, which has been eradicated from the United States due to innovations in health technologies like vaccines, may never return to the US, but Dr. Wolfe stressed that there is an incredible amount that scientists do not yet know about how viruses evolve and move from animals to humans. He added that diseases we have never heard of may one day be in our backyard.

Amid jokes about Ebola in the movies and who gets to name the next new disease, Colbert and Wolfe got serious about the need for heightened attention to the interconnected environment we live in and its effect on how disease spreads. Dr. Wolfe noted that “if you look at airplane routes, and the way we move boats, and animals around, we’re this sort of large mixing vessel of microorganisms, and it means that a virus that pops out of Central Africa or Southeast Asia has the potential to get here to New York or Tokyo in a matter of days. And that’s something that we should all be very concerned about and take very seriously.”

While Colbert knows how to joke about any subject, it’s clear that this issue is not a laughing matter. Global diseases know no borders. Groundbreaking research and development into technologies to combat the diseases of today—coupled with surveillance of the possible pandemic threats of tomorrow—are critical resources for providing us with the knowledge and tools to be ready for whatever is ahead.

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