Pandemics are a terrifying force of nature to which the human race is invariably, by its actions, an unwitting accomplice. They leave an unimaginable toll of death and suffering in their wake. historically, they have wiped out civilizations and decimated others. Kings and emperors have not been spared.
Since man first began to explore continents or trade across seas localized epidemics, in themselves often horrific, have had the opportunity to be borne far from their original source spreading their virulence through the known world. Europeans who had immunity brought diseases to the new world that didn’t, with devastating consequences for indigenous peoples. They in turn gave the white man diseases to which he or she had no immunity. These new World diseases, such as syphilis, then found their way back to Europe with predictable consequences. In fact, history has shown that whenever one group impinges on the isolation of another, disease will follow, regardless of locality. If one phrase could sum up the cause of pandemics it would be ‘ movement of people ’, whether it be explorers, merchants, missionaries, Mongol hoards or crusades. The irony, of course, is that in the long-run mixing of peoples actually strengthens the gene pool and generates immunity that is passed down the generations by survivors.
Smallpox, which killed 300 – 500 million in the 20th century, was formally declared defeated in 1979. It is estimated that it had existed since 10,000 BC. Just this year the World health organization (Who) announced the eradication of Rinderpest, a deadly bovine plague. So have we reached a point in the 21st century – where we continue to see stunning medical and technological advances, where Who can plan global immunization programs and where there is much improved public sanitation and personal hygiene – that pandemics are, all said and done, history?
It is not alarmist to point out that we are currently in a pandemic. Aids, for which there is no vaccine, will, by UN estimates, kill 150 million more people by 2025. It is set to overtake smallpox’s grim toll. nor is it alarmist to point out that we’ve recently had the H1N1 flu pandemic (2010) and SARS (2003). There is also the matter of (non – pandemic) H5N1 avian flu that has been causing disease and death since 1997. In each case, the spread has been successfully contained, but most certainly not defeated. A distinguishing feature of these viruses is their ability to mutate rapidly. Who says it is not a matter of ‘ if ’ but of ‘ when ’ they mutate into a form as deadly as the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed 50- 100 million people in six months, the deadliest short-term pandemic ever recorded. In the age of commercial aviation how much quicker could it spread?
Tuberculosis, malaria, measles and cholera kill between them 2.5 million a year in the world’s poorest countries. democracies have the security of broadly efficient governments and access to any number of antibacterial and antiviral drugs that would surely make these diseases footnotes in their history. But what if those same drugs were starting to prove ineffective because these diseases had acquired resistance? The explosion of ‘hospital’ MRSA into our headlines in recent years is just such a warning. To this conundrum scientists have no answer yet, nor do they see one any time in the foreseeable future. If the antibiotic / antiviral barrier fails, tuberculosis, Malaria, typhus, Cholera and Yellow Fever would return to stalk the first world just as it did in the first half of the 20th century.
There have been a significant number of...