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You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon

Life and Death in the 21st Century:
Future Plagues

BBC2 8:00pm Wednesday 5th January 2000

A secure laboratory The shocking thing about life in the 21st century is that the dream of wiping out infectious diseases may never be realised. In fact, despite all the progress of modern medicine, we face the future knowing that science will never defeat viruses and bacteria. They are the dominant species on the planet. New and deadly viruses will continue to emerge in the 21st century, and killer diseases we thought we had defeated will return.

A young boy suffering from Smallpox In the 20th century, international programmes of vaccination and public health swept the world clean of infectious viral diseases like Smallpox and Polio. And antibiotics were developed to defeat the deadliest bacteria. So successful was the struggle against infectious disease that some scientists became complacent. But now it turns out that the agents of disease are evolving faster than we can control them.

The Ebola virus New plagues of previously unknown infectious diseases will continue to emerge just as AIDS, Ebola, Lassa, and Hanta have in the last few decades - viruses for which we have no vaccine or cure. And antibiotic resistance - the inevitable result of the evolution of bacteria - will bring back old diseases like Tuberculosis (TB) in new, untreatable forms.

Already there have been serious outbreaks of antibiotic resistant TB all over the world, and in New York, and other countries, the laws have been changed to allow the authorities to imprison people with TB, to isolate them while they forcibly undergo treatment. This is an unexpected vision of the future.


An unhealthy lifestyle? As our knowledge increases, more and more diseases thought to be caused by lifestyle, stress and genetic factors are found to be infectious. Could heart disease and cancer all have infectious elements to them? Are nearly all diseases infectious? Horizon examines the struggle of scientists to understand the microbes causing disease, and find new ways of combating our oldest enemies in the 21st century.

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