Why are old deadly diseases coming back?

From the UK to Iraq, illnesses such as polio and cholera are on the rise

Iraq's health system is battling a cholera outbreak in parts of the country. EPA
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In 1953, scientists Francis Crick and James Watson discovered how DNA carries genetic information, easily one of the most important scientific achievements in history. Announcing it to his colleagues at Cambridge University, Crick famously walked into The Eagle pub and declared that they had “found the secret of life”.

Now, as it has done many times already, the science that the pair enabled is bringing life and hope to some of the most ill in society. This week, researchers at the UAE-backed Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Disease in Children in London made breakthroughs in gene editing that pave the way for more effective, targeted treatment of leukaemia. The centre is also using genetic research to help sufferers of early onset epilepsy. Prompt diagnosis means patients can be moved into tailored treatment more quickly, giving children the best chance to deal with the illness.

Also this week, The National has written about the work of Dante Labs’ work in Dubai’s Silicon Oasis. The company offers customers Dh999 saliva testing kits, which create a genetic profile that can identify vulnerabilities to illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer.

These are examples of the many scientific and medical frontiers being explored in 2022. But they do not mask a number of deeply troubling setbacks.

Parts of the Middle East are buckling under the pressure of lethal diseases. In Iraq, the World Health Organisation has just shipped urgent medical supplies to the city of Sulaymaniyah, as it battles a troubling outbreak of cholera. The disease is highly contagious and more cases would pile pressure on the country’s already struggling health system. Iraq’s fragile water supply is a likely cause of the outbreak. Instability has led to poorly maintained and unhygienic infrastructure, and dwindling water sources due to climate change and mismanagement are driving people to more polluted sources. Many hoped that cholera was largely confined to the past. The WHO recorded a 60 per cent decrease in global incidence of the disease in 2018. The fact it is now resurgent in parts of the world is a cause for serious concern.

And it is not the only historically devastating disease making a comeback. This week, the UK detected a possible polio outbreak in London. It has not been found in the country for almost 40 years. The risk to public health is low – most people in the UK have been vaccinated against it – but authorities are urgently calling people who have not been inoculated to do so.

Such setbacks in a year when scientists are making major breakthroughs show that achieving better overall global health is neither straightforward nor inevitable with the passage of time. Work done in cutting-edge labs does not compensate for the need for basic education around the importance of vaccination, hygiene, healthy lifestyles and awareness of where food and drink come from.

Indeed, doctors in the UAE are stressing the importance of continued testing and taking of precautions to battle Covid-19. The scientific realities of new variants and waning immunity from vaccinations are also playing a part, and they are impossible for the individual to control. But Covid-19 reminded the world that personal action is pivotal, too. The advanced work of scientists might make headlines, but individual responsibility could be even more consequential for managing global health, especially in today’s complex epidemiological landscape.

Published: June 24, 2022, 3:00 AM