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Battling Disease – The Real-Life Hydra?

A recent article in Science discussed a claim made by Bill and Melinda Gates, where they proposed that malaria could be eradicated from the Earth over the next few decades. Vanquishing disease is seen as the ultimate goal in medical science, and many dream of the day that we will all be living longer and healthier lives. But the real question is, how do you beat something that will always outrun you?

In Greek mythology, one of the great tests of Hercules was to kill a many-headed monster known as the Hydra. Every time Hercules cut off one of its heads, two more grew in its place. The same is true of most diseases, in that solving one problem tends to lead to a host of others. The article states that smallpox is the only disease that is known to have been eradicated, but there have even been recent scares of a smallpox return. While countless bacteria and viruses evolve easily and rapidly around us, we are somehow trying to get ahead of the game.

As rapidly as we can shift technology, evolution will always be faster, so what is our best hope? It seems to me that the best solutions could lie in our ability to use evolution to our own advantage, perhaps by selecting and modifying “good” bacteria and viruses that can continue to evolve and compete alongside human pathogens. Also, it may be more hopeful to somehow try and modify the life cycles of certain pathogens (perhaps even by easing their transmission), so that they can continue to exist and evolve without causing the symptoms that make them our enemy.

The struggle against disease is a hotly debated topic, and it would be interesting to hear what others feel the best approach is. Every disease requires a slightly unique strategy, but should we be aiming for eradication, or simply peaceful coexistence?

  • Roberts L, Enserink M. Did they really say, eradication? Science 318: 1544-1545 (2007).

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