Fifty years ago, the age-old scourge of infectious disease was receding in the developed world in response to improved public health measures, while the advent of antibiotics, better vaccines, insecticides and improved surveillance held the promise of eradicating residual problems. By the late twentieth century, however, an increase in the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases was evident in many parts of the world. This upturn looms as the fourth major transition in human–microbe relationships since the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. About 30 new diseases have been identified, including Legionnaires' disease, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)/variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), Nipah virus, several viral hemorrhagic fevers and, most recently, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza. The emergence of these diseases, and resurgence of old ones like tuberculosis and cholera, reflects various changes in human ecology: rural-to-urban migration resulting in high-density peri-urban slums; increasing long-distance mobility and trade; the social disruption of war and conflict; changes in personal behavior; and, increasingly, human-induced global changes, including widespread forest clearance and climate change. Political ignorance, denial and obduracy (as with HIV/AIDS) further compound the risks. The use and misuse of medical technology also pose risks, such as drug-resistant microbes and contaminated equipment or biological medicines. A better understanding of the evolving social dynamics of emerging infectious diseases ought to help us to anticipate and hopefully ameliorate current and future risks.