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War on Disease
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By Rick Weiss Photographs by Karen Kasmauski

Microbes threaten billions of people in a world weakened by poverty, war, lack of clean water, and inattention. Former President Jimmy Carter introduces a series examining “Challenges for Humanity” in the 21st century.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Just a couple of decades ago experts declared that many infectious diseases were on the brink of extinction. Improved sanitation, mosquito control, global vaccination, and modern antibiotics appeared to have won the war, and self-assuredness spawned complacency. Flush with our early successes against them, we concluded that microbes were no competition for our big human brains. We were wrong.


The recent emphasis on bioterrorism obscures a more pedestrian but equally important truth about infectious diseases: Even without the element of intentional terror, diseases are a huge source of human suffering—and a tremendously destabilizing force. Nearly half of the world’s premature deaths (deŽned as deaths under the age of 45) are caused by infectious diseases. Some 30 million infants in developing countries remain unprotected by the lifesaving childhood vaccines that in the rest of the world are administered routinely; a million die each year from measles alone. It may not be obvious in the healthier nations, but from a microbe’s point of view the world today—even with modern antibiotics and fancy vaccines—remains a virtual smorgasbord. With the recent reemergence of some of these diseases in richer nations, there is a growing recognition that no nation is an island.

“The lesson of West Nile is that any country is vulnerable,” says David Heymann, executive director of communicable diseases at the World Health Organization in Geneva. “Countries have to realize that infectious diseases, regardless of their origins, can travel widely and affect anyone.” No nation, no matter how rich or seemingly protected, can be assured of a healthy and peaceful future as long as any nation is still an active breeding ground for the world’s many and varied scourges.

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Read former President Jimmy Carter’s “Challenges for Humanity”.

VIDEO Photographer Karen Kasmauski discusses the ways diseases spread and how we fight them. Click here.

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Learn what healthcare workers in Bangladesh feed malnourished children in these recipes for recovery.

Why, despite medical advancements, are infectious disease levels on the rise? Tell us what you think.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Recent terrorist attacks on the United States have brought anthrax to the forefront—yet anthrax, Bacillus anthracis,is no new enemy. The effects of anthrax on animals—including humans—have been described by Moses in the Bible and by Homer, Hippocrates, and Virgil in the Greek and Roman classics, making it one of the oldest recorded diseases of animals.

In the 19th century it was known as woolsorter’s disease, because of the presence of spores in the wool of sheep in England. Weaponization would come in the next century, when World War I introduced anthrax as a weapon against animal populations, though mustard gas used on humans gained more notoriety.

Ironically, the study of the pathogen has been a watershed in the development of modern medicine—for the first time man was able to identify a specific microorganism and isolate it in a pure culture. Louise Pasteur, father of microbiology, discovered that by using weakened forms of a microbe, he could immunize against the more virulent forms and create a vaccine. He did just that in 1881, creating an effective vaccine against anthrax.

Despite his brilliance, Pasteur might have been stunned that anthrax would one day be used as a weapon of bioterrorism.

—Christy Ullrich

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC works to promote the health and quality of life of U.S. citizens by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.

Centre for Health and Population Research
This organization’s mission is to address the major health and population problems facing the world, with an emphasis on cost-effective methods of prevention and management.

World Health Organization (WHO)
The WHO monitors diseases around the world in an effort to save lives—its numerous projects are described on its website.

Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)
A humanitarian medical and aid agency that provides medical aid where needed.

Report of Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States, January 2000: U.S. National Intelligence Council
A discussion of the threat of global infectious disease.

Official Global Polio Eradication Initiative
Discusses key strategies developed by the WHO for polio eradication.

U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
USAMRIID conducts research to develop strategies, products, information, procedures, and training programs for medical defense against biological warfare threats and naturally occurring infectious diseases that require special containment.

United Nations Childrens Fund
UNICEF programs seek to ensure that children have the best possible care from birth and develop to their full potential, enter school healthy and ready to learn, and navigate adolescence safely and surely. UNICEF also supports humanitarian interventions to help meet emergency needs of children and women in crisis areas around the world.

Carter Center
Founded by President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in 1982, the center works to prevent disease and improve health, enhance freedom and democracy, and resolve conflicts around the world.


Egan, Timothy. “A Nation Challenged: Defending the Nation,” New York Times, September 18, 2001.

Kohn, George, ed. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. Facts on File, Inc., 1995.

Oldstone, Michael. Viruses, Plagues, and History. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Vick, Karl. “Where Disease and War Intersect: Officials Fear Ebola Was Spread at Hospital Among Ugandans Escaping Rebels,“ Washington Post, October 17, 2000.


Jaret, Peter. “Viruses: On the Edge of Life, On the Edge of Death,” National Geographic (July 1994), 58-91.

Jaret, Peter. “The Disease Detectives: Stalking the World’s Epidemics,” National Geographic (January 1991), 114-140.

Caputo, Robert. “Uganda—Land Beyond Sorrow,” National Geographic (April 1988), 468-491.

Gerster, Georg. “Tsetse—Fly of the Deadly Sleep,” National Geographic (December 1986), 814-833.

Jaret, Peter. “Our Immune System: The Wars Within,” National Geographic (June 1986), 702-735.

Nielsen, Lewis T. “Mosquitoes, the Mighty Killers,” National Geographic (September 1979), 426-440.

Showalter, William Joseph. “Map-Changing Medicine,” National Geographic (September 1922), 303-330.

Showalter, William Joseph. “Redeeming the Tropics,” National Geographic (March 1914), 344-364.

Howard, L.O. “Economic Loss to the People of the United States Through Insects That Carry Disease,” National Geographic (August 1909), 735-749.


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