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Professor discusses infectious diseases

By : Eric Coker

Infectious diseases have become “property of a population,” thanks to the interactions of community members who can take easier short-term and long-term trips, J. Koji Lum told the Binghamton University Forum on May 20.

“The difference between the global and local perspective is decreasing because our ability to move around the planet is getting easier and easier,” Lum said. “You can be back home before you even know that you are sick.”

Lum, an associate professor of anthropology and biological sciences who also serves as director of the Laboratory of Evolutionary Anthropology and Health, discussed “Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases: Global and Local Perspectives” at Traditions at the Glen in Johnson City.

Lum began his presentation by identifying the “Big 3” infectious diseases that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent millions of dollars fighting: HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

“I used to hate Microsoft, but I can’t hate them,” said Lum, a self-proclaimed “Apple man.” “They are doing such wonderful work.”

While HIV is treatable in First World countries, tuberculosis could be untreatable if it is multi-drug resistant, Lum said. Malaria, though, is a different matter.

“Nobody with health care and an infrastructure has a problem with malaria,” he said. “Malaria is a problem of poverty.”

The challenge is to find ways to cure malaria that are cheap enough for developing countries, Lum said. But many adults in malaria-rich regions do not show any symptoms when infected, making it even more difficult to test people to ensure that the disease is not passed on to at-risk children.

“How do you find people who don’t feel sick?” Lum said. “They’re not coming to the health clinics.”

Lum is doing his part in the fight against the disease, which infects 500 million people a year. His research, funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, examines the evolution of drug resistance in malaria parasites.

Other infectious diseases are spread by short-term travels that mostly feature people from one First World nation visiting another developed nation, Lum said. These diseases are moving from airport to airport.

“SARS went from major airport to major airport: 20 countries in 10 days,” he said. “We have to start thinking beyond the borders of countries and start thinking about our global species. Anyone with a disease is potentially giving it to someone else within 24 hours.”

Long-term movement is also a factor in the spreading of diseases, as many people are leaving tropical, Southern Hemisphere countries for developed countries in the north.

“These people are coming from countries with the highest prevalence of infectious diseases,” Lum said. “Is our medical community prepared?”

Infectious diseases will be a problem for the United States as long as there are an unknown number of illegal immigrants who are “blind to the health-care system,” Lum said.

“If we have 20 million people potentially running around who are reservoirs of infectious disease and nobody knows how many of them there are and they are marginalized from our health-care system, it is a big problem,” he said.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08