‘Can all illnesses be attributed to humans ‘meddling’ with their environment?’

Many diseases and illnesses occurr in history at times when there was no obvious link to human activity or interference. Here, my intention is to provide some instances by which we might reason that illness might be a necessary part of the world we inhabit though I also appreciate some may disagree with the argument that follows – and that’s okay.

Over time, there are clearly strains of virus that repeat and modify themselves. One example is influenza – a viral infection that has the capacity to adapt and develop into more virulent strains. Although the recurrence of these viruses can be quite frequent, they may also occur in more haphazard ways, by which they develop into and/or become pandemics.

This is a major concern for governments around the world who are currently aware of the risk carried by bird flu which has accounted for millions of deaths over the years. A characteristic of the virus is the way it develops in other creatures first and only passes on to humans at a much later stage that may have skipped several generations. From this, it is apparent that humans cannot be held responsible for the way the virus develops other than that they are unwitting recipients and hosts, carrying it from one person to the next. This aspect of how infections are passed between people leads us onto our next aspect – the human immune system.

While it is apparent that the immune system of a human is generally robust in dealing with infections, it is clear that there have been periods in the human lifecycle when the body has been less able to manage these events. Two such times are: infancy when the body is learning to fight infection; and old age when the body is not so strong. Another time when the human defence might fail is when a new virus is encountered which the immune system has not had experience of before.

A classic example of this occurred in New Zealand in the late 18th century with the arrival of colonists from Great Britain, who unwittingly introduced the indigenous Maori population to a range of infectious illnesses. These viruses, such as chicken pox, measles and the common cold, had never been encountered by the Maoris before and many were unable to fight off these infections with the result that a sizeable proportion of this indigenous population died within a decade.

Nowadays, humans have developed antibiotics to assist the immune system ito fight infection. However, although penicillin and other antibiotics have saved many lives, present day medicine advises against the repeated use of these drugs for fear they will inadvertently weaken the immune system’s defences. The problem being that the virus – also a living thing – desires to survive and so adapts to these new antibiotics creating even more complex infections that may one day go beyond the capacity of the human immune system to adapt. Of course, a different problem that arises from this is the failure of humanity to keep pace with these viruses, which continually require new antibiotics to be developed and manufactured.

From this, I think it is unfair to attribute all illnesses to human meddling as clearly some viruses originate within the animal kingdom. However, perhaps more interesting is the innate resourcefulness of our immune system that fights, protects against and adapts on our behalf to ensure that humans survive. Perhaps a case of in-built human resilience in a world that is good for sustaining life but never harm-free.