The next pandemic is near, and our beliefs and politics will make it worse
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There is a killer lurking in the wild, waiting for an opportunity to strike you, and millions of others. According to experts, it is only a short matter of time, and when it strikes, they might not be able to save you. Our politics, our culture, and many other factors are making us vulnerable to pandemic disease.
It is only a matter of time before the next pandemic arrives. Will we be able to stop it?
LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) -- Every so often, a pandemic disease sweeps the world. The last pandemic was mild by most standards. The SARS pandemic in 2003 killed less than 800 people, but it alarmed scientists because it could mutate and spread with a speed unlike any they had witnessed before. It could jump from humans to animals easily, and it was only by miracle the world was spared. It remains a threat that could reemerge, and experts are watching out for it.
More famous pandemics include the Spanish flu, which killed between 50-100 million people between 1918 and 1920. It less than a year, it killed more people than all the casualties caused during World War I, which ended in 1918 after four years of constant fighting.
The Black Death of 1347-1354 was so devastating, it is used as a medieval motif even today. It killed about 375 million people, or between a third to two-thirds of Europe's population. It reveals just how deadly plagues can be.
Fortunately, we have modern medicine and sanitation to help. Doctors are trained to spot infectious diseases and there are protocols for reporting them to authorities around the globe. Within days, governments can react to slow and halt the spread of these diseases. We have powerful institutions dedicated to managing such situations.
Yet, these institutions, like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have obstacles that could interfere with their responses. Scarce financial resources and political bickering could cause a delay, or a misstep, and in the early stages of an emerging pandemic a mistake could cost millions of lives.
World agencies are not helped by the public at large.
A growing number of people are opposed to vaccinations and they are refusing to vaccinate their children. There are various reasons for this, but the "alternative health" industry is growing by billions of dollars and some of its best customers are people who mistrust vaccines.
Vaccine opponents criticize the frequency, composition, and risk of vaccinations, and point out that vaccinations are worth billions of dollars to the pharmaceutical industry. Mistrust of the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry and governments fuels this problem.
However, vaccinations are proven to work in preventing and reducing the incidence of deadly disease. While vaccines do carry risks, the risks are exceedingly small when compared to the dangers posed by the communicable diseases they prevent.
As more people go without vaccinations, there exist more people who can serve as hosts for virulent diseases. Vaccinated people face less risk, but the more hosts a virus can find, the greater the odds of its mutation, and vaccines can be less effective against mutated forms of a disease. Bluntly put, unvaccinated people are putting many more at risk. And they are putting themselves on the front lines of the fight against pandemic disease where they could become the first casualties. Nobody deserves the death penalty for skepticism and a desire to protect themselves and their children from harm, but nature is coldly indifferent to what people think.
The overuse of antibiotics puts us at risk of bacterial plague. The Black Death was caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis). Patients often demand antibiotics when their natural immune systems will suffice for a cure, or even when they have viral infections. Antibiotics do not work against viruses. We also pump antibiotics into livestock, sometimes as a precautionary measure.
Each dose of antibiotics exposes a bacterium to a lethal medication, but in every population there seems to be a tiny percentage that is resistant. When that resistance is passed down to subsequent generations of bacteria, and builds over time, antibiotics become less effective. Eventually, antibiotic resistant strains of disease emerge. This is being witnessed with diseases such as tuberculosis, staph, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In fact, the list is quite long and growing rapidly, more rapidly than new antibiotics can be developed, leading experts to conclude that the next plague could be bacterial, and it could start in a hospital.
Add to these factors the speed at which diseases can evolve, and the speed of modern travel, and we have the potential for a lightning fast pandemic that could outrun and overwhelm our defenses.
Between politics, money, and the behavior of the public at large, the risk is greater than we assume. And as more people and more livestock live in cramped, sometimes unsanitary conditions, the chances for a disease to mutate and spread are growing.
The next pandemic will come, and it is only a question of when. If we are lucky, it will be spotted early, and it will spread slow enough, and kill slow enough that we can contain it. But every once in awhile, the disease is fast and lethal, or spreads in ways we cannot contain it (think: via birds or insects). When that happens, there will be a reckoning between humans and nature, and nature has the better chance.
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