Watching Baseball and Thinking About Pandemics

VIDEO: Dr. Richard Besser points out diseases afflicting the impoverish Cameroon.

What is more American than baseball?  Not much.

In late July, my 13-year-old son had the opportunity to play in a baseball tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He’d been dreaming of this tournament for years.  A culmination of countless hours of hitting, fielding and obsession with baseball.

More than 100 baseball teams from across the country gathered for one week of nonstop baseball. As I sat in the stands for the opening day ceremonies, my mind was split: part of me was enjoying the festivities; another part of me was thinking about pandemics.

Ok, I admit that is strange.  But that is just how I am wired. I’d been trained to think about infections through years of work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Fewer than 24 hours before, I had been in Cameroon, a lush tropical country in Central Africa. I knew that most infections take more than 24 hours to incubate.  So I thought, could I be harboring the next global killer? The next SARS?  And, if so, could I be infecting the 5,000 baseball fans from 22 states sitting around me?

Now if I had just been a tourist in Cameroon, I don’t think I would have been thinking about global devastation. But I had been in Cameroon actually hunting for the next pandemic with professor Nathan Wolfe, a virus hunter with Global Viral Forecasting Initiative.  We had picked Cameroon for a very specific reason.  New viruses tend to emerge where animals are in close contact with humans.  This closeness, especially when the animal is similar to us, allows germs to jump species.  This is how HIV spread. It is also how Ebola, malaria, and SARS took off.  Cameroon is one of those places where the animal diversity and human behavior come together.

Global Viral Forecasting is establishing what it calls “viral listening posts” around the world, looking for new viruses in animals and then seeing if they jump to infect the hunters who look to those animals as a source of food.  The goal is to be able to detect the next pandemic virus before it is able to even get started.  Detect it early as it first jumps to humans, Global Viral says, and perhaps there will be time to develop a vaccine or other control mechanism.

So as I sat and watched the baseball teams parade onto the field, I thought about the animals I had seen for sale by the side of the road and in the markets: monkey, giant rat and python.  I thought about the woman spraying blood around her hut as she butchered a porcupine. I thought about the mosquitoes and ants that had swarmed us as we trekked through the jungle checking animal traps.  Could any of that be a source of a new disease?

And, in particular, I thought about how connected we are in 2011. How a plane could take me from the jungles of Cameroon to the ballparks of Cooperstown in less than a day. And I thought that I finally had another good answer for why people here need to care about health over there.

The “Be the Change: Save a Life” initiative is supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For complete coverage and information on how you can make a difference, go to

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...