Hugh Wilson
25 November 2010 10:57 | By Hugh Wilson, contributor, MSN Him

Deadly plagues of the future



Couple walking in smoke (© PA)

The history of human civilisation is pockmarked with the ravages of pandemic disease.

In 430BC, for example, the historian Thucydides notes that a sudden and mysterious ailment killed nearly a third of the Athenian population. A few hundred years later, a disease that scholars now think was probably smallpox was wiping out 5,000 Romans every day.

And right up until the 1700s Europe was being assailed by outbreaks of the most terrible pandemic disease yet to strike humanity. Over a quarter of Europe's population was wiped out in one outbreak of bubonic plague between 1347 and 1350. By 1700, the Black Death, as it was commonly called, had been responsible for a dizzying 137 million deaths over the previous 400 years.

Of course, none of that could happen now. Today we have antibiotics, inoculation and sanitation. If we were threatened with a pandemic severe enough to cost thousands or even millions of lives, we'd be able to do something about it. Wouldn't we?

Well, perhaps. It's true that, in Western countries at least, improved cleanliness and nutrition, along with better living conditions and a vastly expanded medical knowledge, mean that pandemics like bubonic plague have been wiped from the world.

World Health Organisation (© PA)

But in another sense, our technological society puts us in a uniquely vulnerable position. Global air travel means that contagious disease originating in one corner of the world can spread internationally in a matter of days.

Today, the pandemics we fear most - SARS and swine flu, for example - don't have to originate anywhere near Europe's high-tech, scrubbed-clean shores.

Of course, neither SARS nor swine flu ravaged Western populations (or at least, they haven't yet). But according to experts, we've been lucky. We may have conquered a host of life-threatening diseases, but that doesn't mean new and potentially deadly viruses aren't hanging around in the ether, waiting to mutate, infect and spread at any time.

So here are four possible plagues of the future. None are guaranteed to become pandemics any time soon (or even at all), but scientists say we need to be alert to their potential threat.

Ebola

Nurse holding test tube (© PA)

Ebola is a lethal and frightening disease that has largely been confined to outbreaks in Africa. In fact, Ebola can be the most deadly of any human pathogenic virus, with mortality rates during one outbreak in Zaire reaching 90%. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and internal and external bleeding.

So why hasn't Ebola ravaged the home counties? At the moment, it simply doesn't spread efficiently enough. The gruesome truth is that most of those who catch the disease die too quickly to pass it to many others. The virus is simply too deadly.

Which makes it ideal for bio-terrorism, and in 1992 members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo - the group responsible for the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground - travelled to Zaire with the express purpose of acquiring the virus.

They didn't succeed. But even without the threat of bio-terrorism, there are fears that Ebola or a similar viruse could mutate, turning a nightmarish but thankfully rare illness into a global plague of the future.

Flu

Students wearing flu masks (© PA)

For most of us, flu is a nasty irritation requiring a week or so off work. But pandemic flu can be deadly, and it's common. In the pandemic of Spanish flu, which started in 1918, over 50 million people died, and there were at least two other flu pandemics in the 20th century.

Which is all very well, but recent panics over so-called bird and swine flu have proven to be gross overreactions, at least in Westernised countries. Perhaps flu pandemics that kill millions can be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Scientists very much doubt it, and so do the governments that have spent billions of dollars planning for a future flu pandemic. The reason is simple. At the moment, bird flu passes from birds to humans but not between humans, limiting its pandemic potential. It would only take a strain to emerge with the contagious properties of seasonal flu and a plague of the future may have arrived.

Smallpox

Doctor in protective gear (© PA)

Surely smallpox is a plague of the past, not the future? Well, let's hope so. In 1979, after a massive programme of global vaccination, smallpox was declared officially eradicated from the world.

Which is very good news indeed when you consider that during more serious historical outbreaks smallpox would kill 30% of those infected, and that as recently as 1967 two million people were dying from the disease every year.

But smallpox isn't completely gone. Stocks exist in labs in Russia, the US and perhaps elsewhere. The danger of them falling into the wrong hands and being used for bio-terrorism is real.

And what would happen if smallpox was re-introduced? The fact is, we're not really sure. Since 1979, nobody knows what sort of immunity human populations still possess. If released in third world nations, smallpox could have devastating effects and quickly spread around the globe.

Biological warfare

Doctor and test tube (© PA)

We've already mentioned the possibility of smallpox and Ebola falling into the hands of modern terrorists. But humans have known about the power of biological warfare for centuries. The plague-ridden corpses of Mongol warriors were catapulted over the walls of the city of Kaffa during the siege of 1346, an act that may have first brought the Black Death to Europe.

In the late 18th century, British commanders discussed the idea of decimating the Native American population by giving them gifts of smallpox-infected blankets.

Today, diseases considered for weaponisation (turning into weapons of war), or known to have been weaponised already, include anthrax, cholera, typhus and yellow fever, to name a few. Accidents happen, and weapons can be lost or stolen.

Germ warfare may be unlikely any time soon, but that doesn't eradicate the possibility of biological weapons sparking a deadly global pandemic.

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