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The Big Future: Can we conquer infectious disease?

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With ambitious vaccine projects taking on the flu virus, Ebola, and other significant threats to human health, will our future be less sick? Is it possible we'll never be felled by the flu again?

The future of the flu

Scientists are working on an ambitious effort at a global flu vaccine — so seasonal variation won't matter as much for immunity. The virus has protruding proteins on its surface that look a little bit like lollipops, and current vaccines target the bulbous part of the lollipop. The attempts at a universal vaccine target the stem, which doesn't have as much genetic variation between strains.

Better disease monitoring

Improvements in surveillance mean it's easier to catch outbreaks before they get too broad, although that isn't necessarily foolproof — the most recent Ebola epidemic began in December 2013 in some districts of Guinea, but the WHO wasn't notified of the outbreak until March 23, 2014.

antibiotics

The post-antibiotic hellscape

I'd like to be able to tell you that the future won't have as much disease as the present, but I don't think I can. Bacteria are appearing that don't respond to our existing drugs — the bacteria that cause them have evolved defenses. Usually, we have new antibiotics to roll out and use to fight off bacterial infections, but not right now. That's really bad news for surgeries, common medical devices like catheters, organ transplant patients, and people with severe burns — or anyone with an open wound.

Agriculture and antibiotic-resistant disease

Right now, the biggest consumers of antibiotics aren't even human. Animals use about 80 percent of the antibiotics in the US. This agricultural give bacteria more exposure to the drugs we use to battle disease, making it easier for them to evolve resistance. So unless something changes soon, our future looks... kind of sickly.