During a lecture on Tuesday, former Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Julie Gerberding discussed the challenge of developing vaccines to deal with the growing number of new infectious diseases that have limited antimicrobial treatments.
Gerberding began with an overview of the problems the CDC and vaccine companies face in properly distributing vaccines around the world. While individuals living in developing countries desperately seek vaccines, those in developed countries like the United States question whether vaccines are safe. Gerberding believed that increasing access to vaccines and removing doubts about them are the main issues surrounding infectious diseases currently.
She used severe acute respiratory syndrome as an example of the kind of health epidemic that can spread globally overnight. What initially began as an individual from Guangdong Province in China traveling to Hong Kong for medical care resulted in the observance of SARS in many nations almost immediately. She said that such patterns are common in many modern global health epidemics.
Gerberding further discussed the parallel between the development of transcontinental highways and the increased vulnerability of infectious disease transmission. She offered the Trans-African Highway network and its high rates of HIV/AIDS infections as an example of this issue, and warned of infections that might arise in the future construction of transcontinental highways in Southeast Asia.
“It is no longer a situation where some problem over there is not our problem,” Gerberding said. “Now these problems are everywhere, and it isn’t just about us getting infected. We can also spread our infections to animals.”
She noted methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as a type of infection that is transmitted from humans to animals. Gerberding stressed the importance of adopting a One Health view, an initiative to develop a holistic point of view when combating infectious diseases. Gerberding stressed that recognizing the complexity of the ecological system among animals, humans, plants and insects is pivotal in developing a proper measure against diseases.
The final portion of her lecture focused on bacterial resistance to current treatment methods. She mentioned the phrase “you use it, you lose it” to describe the kind of rapid resistance that infectious diseases can develop.
She displayed a diagram detailing the potent ability of bacteria to overcome treatments. Viruses and bacteria quickly became immune to penicillin, which used to be known as the “wonder drug.” Subsequently, methicillin was developed as a new treatment, but after bacteria also found resistance to methicillin, vancomycin had to be developed to overcome bacterial resistance.
Gerberding concluded by discussing the need to assure parents who are skeptical about the vaccine that although their concerns are justified, scientific evidence proves that letting their babies receive vaccines is essential.
“By not vaccinating your babies, they’re placing a bet that that baby is not going to come in contact with any of the rest of the people in the world who might be carrying that particular infectious disease,” said Gerberding. “And as we are learning from the U.S., as we’re seeing the new measles outbreak today in Boston and the rubella outbreak in Japan … the hesitancy is having a negative public health consequence.”
Julie Gerberding was director of the CDC from 2002 to 2009, where she led the agency through many public health crises, including SARS, anthrax bioterrorism and food-borne disease outbreaks. Although Gerberding’s tenure was marred by critics who argued that she allowed politics to intrude on the organization’s scientific agenda, she left her legacy by reorganizing the structure of the CDC before resigning in 2009.
Gerberding’s lecture was on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in Frist 302 and was hosted by Innovation: Princeton Journal of Science and Technology.