Global Health Crusader
One on One
From the September 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe stands in rare company: He was among ten young professionals named in 2009 as National Geographic Emerging Explorers, an honor awarded for significant accomplishments made early in their careers. Wolfe was singled out for his efforts to fight pandemics with an early-warning system to identify and control new plagues before they become widespread. A visiting professor in human biology at Stanford University and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, Wolfe has created a dozen field sites in viral hot spots in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Laos, Malaysia, and other countries. His work has led to the discovery of several previously unknown retroviruses.
How would you describe what you do? I try to understand how pandemics are born. The way that pandemics come to us is through our interaction with animals. That's true whether it's swine flu (H1N1), bird flu, Ebola, or HIV. These are all animal diseases that jumped to humans. I travel to usually remote regions with high levels of contact between humans and wildlife and other animals, and then I study the transfer of these viruses to humans.
What is the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative? It's an effort to turn things on their head. The way organizations approach disease control globally is a bit like what cardiologists were doing in the 1950s, which is pretty much wait for the heart attack and then do your best to treat it. The reality is, just as with cardiology, there is a whole range of ways we can try to prevent pandemics. We're setting up this monitoring system in which we study individuals who have high levels of contact with animals, and they collect specimens from the animals for us. We watch as the viruses are pinging at us, and when something takes hold in humans, we sound the alarm—hopefully, much earlier than what we've seen in the recent case of swine flu, before it is everywhere in the world.
What are the health implications of today's global interconnectedness? It has good and bad consequences. A negative consequence is that a new virus that previously would have perhaps stayed put in some rural region now can quickly get anywhere on the planet. At the same time, we have the potential to better monitor things, for example by cell phone. We worked in central Congo where there is no electricity, no running water, and yet there are cell phones. That means we can follow individuals more easily.
How do viruses impact a critical business like travel? Tourism brings economic development and the educational benefits of coming in contact with different cultures. But travel does facilitate the movement of viruses and microorganisms. And just as travel can spread diseases among humans, it can also affect animal populations. The chytrid fungus is one example. This is a devastating fungal disease in frogs that we humans unwittingly have transported on our feet, causing the potential extinction of certain amphibian species.
Are you pessimistic or optimistic about any given culture's ability to preserve itself? I do think that we lose a lot with our interconnectedness, because of the homogenization of cultures. You ask people in rural regions what they want and they rarely say health care or even education. Most often it's electricity and roads, which further cultural intermingling. But still, the best cultural traits tend to stick around.
Do you have a philosophy of travel? I'm a minimalist. I never travel with anything other than my carry-on bag. And if you look at my luggage, you'll see I have everything I need. Actually, my philosophy extends beyond luggage to a more general philosophy of traveling light. We should be open-minded when we interact with folks and be ready to laugh and listen and embrace and try to understand things from a slightly different perspective. The less baggage we carry—physical and cultural—the better.
What are the most "foreign" places you've been? There are a few gems, places like Ethiopia, Thailand, and Japan, that have civilizations that seem very foreign. Borneo and rural places like the Congo Basin have that quality, which really is what we are looking for as travelers.
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What are your impressions of Cameroon? When you first arrive and walk down the street, you sense an aggressiveness in individuals. But as soon as you say "bonjour," a big smile emerges on their faces. I used to go for omelets in the morning to this little place on the side of the street where taxi drivers hung out. These taxi drivers looked like they were about to come to death blows as they got into intense arguments, but at the end, they would stand up and embrace each other as if they were old friends. That totally changed my perception of Cameroon from a place that felt a bit aggressive to one that had a wonderful warmth to it.
What about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? In the DRC, there are populations that have been through some of the most difficult challenges you could imagine—entire generations of kids who are the result of systematic rape, their family members killed. And yet there is an optimism and a forward-looking viewpoint. It gives you an incredible respect for these cultures that have faced such profound despair and difficulty. People smile and greet you as a neighbor and guest. They are not overwhelmed by paranoia and suspicion, as you might expect.
And how about Laos? I love Laos. It has that foreign quality we were talking about. The people are open and friendly. In Laos, you can get a sense of what parts of Southeast Asia must have felt like decades ago. With its Buddhist background, the country seems pretty laid back.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.