Re: Disease Control

Anders Sandberg (
28 Dec 1997 19:04:31 +0100 (David A Musick) writes:

> One of the greatest problems facing Humanity is the spread of infectious
> diseases. This has always been a problem, and it has the potential to be
> quite devastating in the present and future as people pack more tightly
> together in cities and as single individuals come into close proximity
> with more and more other people every day.

Density isn't the main problem, it is the ease of
transmission. Practically no place on earth is more than around 12
hours of travel from anywhere else given sufficient money, and a
noticeable fraction of the earth's population is travelling at every
moment. This makes spread of disease much quicker.

Note that density may also be positive, since it means it is easier to
organize defenses against the disease, vaccinations etc. Even keeping
people at home works better in a city than in a rural region.

> What if humans developed a procedure which could detect most or all known
> infectious diseases in a human that was fairly fast (< 2 hours) and
> fairly inexpensive (< US $100)? Is such a procedure possible? What
> would be the consequences of its availability?

I think something like this is possible and even likely to be
developed. We are getting better and better at bio-assays, and many
common bacteria can be tested for very quickly (matter of minutes at
least for some kinds).

Viruses are harder, but the new DNA-chips combined with a miniature
PCR device could do wonders. Add a sample, dissolve it, PCR, divide
into sections with special restriction enzymes, compare to known
diseases (ignore unrelated stuff like human DNA). Hmm, that sounds
feasible within a few years, maybe it is a good idea for somebody to
think through it more carefully, start a company and help humanity
while earning good money on it?

The above device would today be very expensive, but the combined
version would be so useful that it would likely be a mass-market
object that rapidly fell in price (a big hospital version with
sophisticated analysis, and a bedside device able to identify common
pathogens, possibly able to download "lookout sequence of the week"
from the Internet).

> One obvious consequence is that when humans traveled to different
> countries, Customs, while ensuring the humans are not smuggling anything
> illegal into their country, will also make sure they are not smuggling in
> any infectious diseases.

Yes, this is quite likely. And IMHO a good idea too; I don't like
customs by principle, but as a defense aganst pathogens they are a
good idea (I have a half-baked essay about the problems with global
travel and communication, where I argue that some barriers are useful
to keep global diversity high. How to reconcile them with global
freedom is a hard problem).

> Another likely consequence is that governments may require their citizens
> to be screened for disease periodically.

I think most people could be convinced to scan themselves; it is after
all in their own best interest to get treatment quickly too. There
will of course be a group of recalcitrant or anti-hypochondriacs (the
kind of people who never go to the doctor even when they have a quite
obvious illness; this includes many doctors :-), but even an
incomplete screening is a good thing to prevent spread of many diseases.

> Disease control is certainly an extropic goal. What are some good ideas
> for achieving this goal?

I think we should try to find ways of spreading medical know-how to as
many people as possible, in order to help them be in control over
their own bodies and to select suitable treatments. My hope is that we
could gradually move to more decentralized medicine, with easy to use
and safe systems in the home that can deal with simple complaints
(such as the screening device suggested above), local "health shops"
to keep our bodies in trim and larger, more specialized hospitals
dealing with the real problems.

It is obviously the later that should work on the epidemological side,
by gathering information from the more local levels (I don't think it
would be much of an invasion or privacy if health monitoring data from
your home scanner with your name and number removed was automatically
sent to the central database for statistical processing; just keep
Microsoft out of it :-) and disseminating alerts and suggestions.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
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