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Modern Medicine as Species Killer

You and I now live in the “Anthropocene” geological epoch, a term coined by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen over a decade ago as replacement for the “Holocene” epoch which began about 11,000 years ago. Evidence for a new, human-dominated geological epoch beginning recently include the facts that (1) man’s burning fossil fuels and clearing forests have increased the carbon dioxide content of our air by about 40 percent since 1750; (2) farming and other human activities have transformed and now dominate almost half of Earth’s land surface; (3) man is changing the chemical composition and temperature of the world’s oceans and has harnessed for his own uses most of the world’s accessible fresh water; (4) other animals are being crowded out by man so that species extinction is a thousand times more rapid than at any time during millions of years prior to man’s modest beginnings in Africa 150,000 years ago; and so on.

The present human-dominated geological epoch began before Crutzen’s labeling, but man’s changing the planet has increased sharply as world population grew from about one billion in 1800 to over seven billion today. Much of the credit for man’s rapid growth in numbers belongs to modern medicine. In past centuries, plagues periodically decimated civilization. The Black Plague in the fourteenth century killed a third of Europe’s population, and the more recent worldwide flu epidemic of 1919 took 50 million lives. Medical science has greatly prolonged and improved human life, allowing populations to increase rapidly, as its knowledge and ability to combat microorganisms has grown exponentially since the germ theory of disease was accepted in the late 19th century.

Man’s ability to continue to proliferate and claim for his own uses more and more of the Earth’s resources, and crowd out other animal species, may be at a turning point. Today’s newspapers headline the first transmission of the dangerous Ebola virus in the United States – in Dallas, to a nurse who treated an Ebola victim who died there last week. Right now we are told that the virus can spread only through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected and visibly ill person; not through the air like the flu virus, which has proved capable of mutating ahead of our best prevention and cure methods. Regrettably the Ebola virus has trillions of potential ways to mutate, and man by his numbers and ubiquity has made himself the best game in town for numerous bugs in the microorganism world to feed on. How the fierce wars between human immune systems on the one side, assisted by the best medical science can deploy, and the bacteria, virus, fungal microworld on the other side, will play out is in the murky future.


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