Special Issue on Biological Disasters
Life Science Department, Science Council of Japan, 3-5-6-301 Honkomagome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0021, Japan
Looking back on history, we find that human beings have suffered from many biological disasters. Most of these have been infectious diseases such as cholera, plague, and small pox. Medical advances have brought vaccines and other specific cures enabling us to avoid damages from some of infectious diseases, yet many remain to be conquered. Highly pathogenic avian influenza, a disease in birds occurring repeatedly since ancient times, is now found worldwide. A World Health Organization (WHO) announced on February 15, 2007 that of 273 bird flu victims in 11 countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, 166 have died. Since bird flu does not spread easily to human beings, the number of victims is limited. Once it mutates to a new strain of virus, however, it may be transmitted so easily that it could cause a large number of deaths. Many such cases have actually occurred in the past. The worst historically recorded ones involved Spanish flu, which started in 1918 during World War I among French and German soldiers and spread globally, resulting in 20 million to 60 million deaths. Spanish flu – said to have been named after its effects on the Spanish royal family – is known to have caused the highest number of deaths of any single infection. More than 30 types of emerging infectious diseases have recently been discovered including Lassa virus, Ebola virus, and Helicobacter pylori which causes stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Among them, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, has produced 30 million victims globally since its discovery in Los Angeles in 1981. Many infectious diseases are also reemerging after having once been decreased. These include malaria, plague, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and influenza, according to WHO. Rabies is another such case that alone kills 50,000 people a year worldwide. Even in Japan, where no rabies cases have originated since 1956, two victims contracted rabies and died within the last year after being bitten during trips to Southeast Asia. Besides microorganisms or viruses, abnormal protein named ‘prion’ was found to cause disease. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was such a case which set off a global panic when it spread from cattle to human beings, in whom it causes variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). We have experienced biological terrorisms, which are intentionally-caused biological disasters by human. For example, the terrorist sent anthrax bacillus through the mail in the United States in 2001 – an act killed 5 people. WHO has warned that smallpox virus, plague bacillus, and botulinum toxin could also be used in bioterrorism. This issue features cases of biological disasters that are sure to prove both interesting and informational to readers. We thank the authors and others who, through their dedication and hard work, have made this edition possible.