Scientist: Unusual diseases on the upswing

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 2, 2003

When Dr. James Johnson Jr. talks about his work with the World Health Organization, he seldom has any trouble holding the attention of his audience.

It’s not necessarily the kind of conversation you care to have at the dinner table, Johnson admits. But it is the kind of conversation he insists we need to have in the post-9/11 world in which we live.

Johnson is a medical social scientist. Tuesday he spoke to the Selma Kiwanis Club about his work as a bioterrorism consultant for WHO.

One unintended side effect of the worldwide trend toward globalization in the areas of industry and transportation in recent years has been a parallel increase in the globalization of disease.

As travel has grown increasingly affordable and accessible, diseases that once existed only in faraway places are now finding their way to the borders of the United States.

He cites the outbreak of monkey pox in several Midwestern states as merely the most recent in a disturbing string of examples. While long common in Africa, the disease had never been detected in the United States until earlier this year.

The disease is believed to have been spread by a giant Gambian rat imported as an exotic pet. While Johnson describes monkey pox as &uot;a first cousin&uot; to the more virulent smallpox, it is usually not fatal to humans.

Not so, however, with West Nile virus, which is spread by mosquitoes. West Nile virus first appeared in the Western Hemisphere in 1999, when 83 human cases and nine deaths were attributed to the disease. By 2002, those numbers had climbed to more than 4,000 reported cases with 300 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta predicts that those numbers will climb &uot;much, much higher,&uot; according to Johnson.

Other examples of the globalization of disease are mad cow disease and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

Mad cow disease had a devastating impact last year on the cattle industry in Europe, especially in Great Britain.

While the attack on the World Trade Centers wreaked havoc on the American economy, Johnson warns that the potential for even greater damage exists from a terrorist attack on the food chain. &uot;America is the breadbasket of the world,&uot; he says. &uot;Our farms are very open to the potential for terrorism.&uot;

The origin and exact nature of the SARS virus continue to mystify experts at WHO since it was first identified earlier this year. Johnson says it was initially feared that SARS might have been the result of a bioterrorism experiment went awry. Since that time other theories have been advanced, including the possibility that it might have come from cats.

Because of the rapid spread of the disease &045;&045; more than 10,000 cases have been reported worldwide &045;&045; WHO took the unprecedented step of issuing advisories against traveling to China, Hong Kong and Vietnam where the disease is believed to have originated.

Johnson is a Selma native who has returned to his roots after a 30-year absence. In addition to his work in the area of international health with WHO in Geneva, he also does consulting work with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Dow Foundation in Michigan.

He has published seven books on a wide range of health related issues and is currently writing a new book on bioterrorism preparedness.