By Arvind M. Dhople, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Florida Tech
December 27, 2022, marks the bicentenary of Dr. Louis Pasteur’s two hundredth birthday, and scientists from all the world celebrated for his discoveries of the principles of vaccines and microbial fermentation. His legacy echoes the many streets, schools, and hospitals that bear his name, and in the widespread use of pasteurized food worldwide.
Born in Dole, France, on December 27, 1822, Dr. Pasteur was a young polymath when he embarked on a path of discovery with profound societal relevance. By the age of 40 years, he was a national hero and an international authority on microbiology, vaccines, and immunology. His germ theory of disease laid the foundation for hygiene and sanitation within public and global health. He developed the first vaccine against rabies in 1885. Along with other great scientists of his time, Dr. Pasteur shaped scientific reasoning and communication for the better, creating a legacy that catalyzed progress in human health that has been sustained for the past 150 years. Yet, infectious diseases continue to cause millions of unnecessary deaths. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, global burden of disease data indicated that infections were involved in more than 20% of deaths globally.
The barriers to realizing Dr. Pasteur’s legacy in combating infectious diseases become apparent. Let’s see the technologies and strategies that have advanced infection control and prevention in the context of health-care settings. Most hospital-acquired infections can now be prevented. Yet infection control remains problematic in low-income countries where basic implementation of simple practices is challenging and often left unaddressed. Consider the disproportional burden of rabies, which still kills one person approximately every 10 minutes, in poor settings in these low-income countries, despite effective vaccines to break transmission chains between humans and dogs. It becomes apparent that failures to rendering equal production to all are consequences of health inequities that are propagated by sociocultural and political environments and ineffective messaging and community engagement.
The 21st century is seeing a changing landscape of infectious diseases. Old and new pathogens are emerging under growing pressure of anthropogenic forces. Climate change is affecting the distribution and transmission of pathogens. Antimicrobial resistance and emerging zoonosis are profound threats, now and in the immediate future. More than one million people – a number set to rise – die from bacterial antimicrobial resistance each year, disproportionately affecting people where health care and sanitation infrastructure are weakest. Pandemic will become more common, yet lessons from COVID-19 are being ignored. To combat such threats, we should call for prosociality, whereby governments and institutions reorient towards multilateral systems that foster international public health collaboration and solidarity.
The unstable social and political context in which we live our lives is creating new public health challenges. An infodemic has seen the rapid spread of misinformation that resonates with people in ways that expert advice does not. Vaccine hesitancy is now a major barrier to fighting infectious diseases. Many parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children because of concerns about vaccine safety, despite reassurance from doctors and public health authorities. This hesitancy reflects a broader breakdown on trust in the state and in scientists. Dr. Pasteur had crafted his public image to bolster support for his research. He understood the power of knowledge, know-how, and dissemination of information in his relationship with the public. Now, more than ever, the medical research community needs to hone creative and authentic science communication and public engagement skills to rebuild trust with a divided society so their work can save lives.
“In our century, science is the soul of the prosperity of nations and the living source of progress. Undoubtedly, the tiring daily discussions of politics seem to be our guide – empty appearances! – what really leads us forward are a few scientific discoveries and their applications.” These words of Dr. Pasteur’s could not be more poignant in a 21st century shaping up to be dominated by polarizing and health-harming politics.