Fossil Fuels & The Fight Against Infectious Diseases

When I talk about vaccines and antimicrobials I often refer to them as pillars of civilization, responsible for adding decades to our lives. However, broadening my context from that of a medical doctor to look at the roots of these modern tools of the physician, it becomes clear that in order for these and other developments to have any impact a source of cheap and reliable energy is required.

For example, anytime one is talking about using a vaccine in a resource-limited region, the concept of the "cold chain" becomes very important. Many vaccines require refrigeration in order to preserve their potency. This fact can become a major problem since many regions of the world do not have access to the reliable electricity that is required for refrigeration. The fact that fully 1.3 billion people in the world have no access to and 3 billion have suboptimal access to electricity--most effectively produced through the burning of fossil fuels--cannot be separated from the fact that infectious disease rage on unabated in many parts of the world.

A case in point is the recent Ebola outbreak which exploded in a region that lacked much of the infrastructure of civilization. In fact, Guinea the origin of the West African Ebola outbreak, is an area plagued by electricity shortages to the point that riots have been provoked. Another example is the inability to utilize sophisticated diagnostic tests in much of the developing world because they lack the electricity necessary to run and maintain the machines consistently. One last example from North America is particularly instructive. It is well known that the mosquito-borne dengue fever rages just south of the US border with Mexico yet is severely delimited (though does occur) just north of the border in Texas. A fascinating and important study revealed something called "The Texas Lifestyle" plays a role in the inability of dengue to reach the numbers it has just across a border that is meaningless to the mosquito. What is "The Texas Lifestyle"? It's a conglomeration of activities that are more characteristic of Texans than Mexicans and notably includes the heavy use of air-conditioning, something that mosquitoes hate and also something that usually obviates the need to open windows. What makes air-conditioning possible? A cheap and reliable source of electricity.

These are all facts I know very well and have to consider when discussing infectious disease outbreaks and the appropriate response. However, an incredible new book makes these points and many more. The book is entitled The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and is written by the Center for Industrial Progress' Alex Epstein. In short, this is a tour de force presentation of the benefits mankind has reaped by the use of cheap, reliable, and plentiful fossil fuels. Mr. Epstein, like me, gauges the benefit of fossil fuels by using a human standard of value: "Does fossil fuel use benefit the human race?" is the operative question and the answer, backed by limitless data, is an unequivocal "yes". 

When we think about how best to battle infectious diseases and why some countries have fared much better than others (the US, for example, was once ridden with malaria and Yellow Fever-carrying mosquitoes, measles, mumps, rubella, and tuberculosis) it should never be neglected that infrastructure, made possible by the use of fossil fuels, is a key component for beating back these scourges that have plagued mankind since antiquity. For this perspective I recommend, in the highest possible terms, Mr. Epstein's book.