Skip to Main Content


The origins of the field of infectious diseases are humble. The notion that communicable diseases were due to a miasma (“bad air”) can be traced back to at least the mid-sixteenth century. Not until the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the late nineteenth century was there credible evidence supporting the germ theory of disease—i.e., that microorganisms are the direct cause of infections. In contrast to this relatively slow start, the twentieth century saw remarkable advances in the field of infectious diseases, and the etiologic agents of numerous infectious diseases were soon identified. Furthermore, the discovery of antibiotics and the advent of vaccines against some of the most deadly and debilitating infections greatly altered the landscape of human health. Indeed, the twentieth century saw the elimination of smallpox, one of the great scourges in the history of humanity. These remarkable successes prompted noted scholar Aidan Cockburn to write in a 1963 publication entitled The Evolution and Eradication of Infectious Diseases: “It seems reasonable to anticipate that within some measurable time … all the major infections will have disappeared.” Professor Cockburn was not alone in this view. Robert Petersdorf, a renowned infectious disease expert and former editor of this textbook, wrote in 1978 that “even with my great personal loyalties to infectious diseases, I cannot conceive a need for 309 more [graduating trainees in infectious diseases] unless they spend their time culturing each other.” Given the enormous growth of interest in the microbiome in the past 5 years, Dr. Petersdorf’s statement might have been ironically clairvoyant, although he could have had no idea what was in store for humanity, with an onslaught of new, emerging, and re-emerging infectious diseases.

Clearly, even with all the advances of the twentieth century, infectious diseases continue to represent a formidable challenge for patients and physicians alike. Furthermore, during the latter half of the century, several chronic diseases were demonstrated to be directly or indirectly caused by infectious microbes; perhaps the most notable examples are the associations of Helicobacter pylori with peptic ulcer disease and gastric carcinoma, human papillomavirus with cervical cancer, and hepatitis B and C viruses with liver cancer. In fact, ∼16% of all malignancies are now known to be associated with an infectious cause. In addition, numerous emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases continue to have a dire impact on global health: HIV/AIDS, pandemic influenza, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are but a few examples. The fear of weaponizing pathogens for bioterrorism is ever present and poses a potentially enormous threat to public health. Moreover, escalating antimicrobial resistance in clinically relevant microbes (e.g., Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Plasmodium species, and HIV) signifies that the administration of antimicrobial agents—once thought to be a panacea—requires appropriate stewardship. For all these reasons, infectious diseases continue to exert grim effects on individual patients as well as on international public health. Even with all the successes of the past ...

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.