Are we entering an era of pandemics?

Swine flu has been on top of news for the last couple of weeks. It has been spreading across the globe really fast and on last count around 21 countries have confirmed cases of Swine flu and another 20 more countries had suspected cases. The speed at which this pandemic has spread across the globe has been mind-boggling. The first reported case of Swine flu was in Mexico on April 2nd 2009 and the virulent strain of the swine flu was discovered on April 16th only. Within a short span of 3-4 weeks this has spread to 40 countries across 5 continents putting millions of people at risk!

This is not the first time the world has seen pandemics. The biggest one in the not too distant past was the 1918 Spanish flu. This pandemic claimed an estimated 50 million plus lives across the globe. Some of the other significant pandemics that caused large scale impact include 1958 Asian flu,1968 Hong Kong flu etc. The more recent pandemics in this decade include SARS, Avian flu etc. Never before in the history of humans has the risk of being affected in a pandemic of a global scale that too within a short span of time been higher. The pace of spread of these pandemics gives us very less time to respond/find cures.

Some interesting patterns that i see based on these are:

a) These pandemics seems to be occuring more and more often (3 significant ones so far in this decade)

b) Most of these virulent strains are resistant to known anti-biotics and drugs and are increasing harder to cure using our current medicines

c) The speed with they spread across the globe is rapidly increasing with each outbreak

Increasing trade and travel between countries has been acting as a catalyst speeding up the proliferation of these pandemics. As global population is getting aggregated into ever-growing cities, more and more people are crammed into smaller places/close proximity. In lot of 3rd world countries the living conditions & hygene in these cities are really bad. This exponentially increases the risk of both creating a pandemic and being exposed to a pandemic. If you notice another interesting trend, more than 60% of all infectious diseases are caused by 'zoonoses' - pathogenic viruses that originate in animals and jump to humans. Some of the classic examples of zoonoses include SARS, bird flu, HIV/AIDS, West nile virus, Ebola etc. A lot of these are very lethal and we still dont have a cure yet. Zooneses are caused due to increasing human/animal interactions & clashes due to declining habitat.

Taking a step back, while we have made gaint strides in science and medicine in the last century our risk to getting exposed to these pandemics has only increased. The complexity of newer diseases has outpaced the growth of science and technology. Whether knowingly or unknowingly we may have contributed to this increased risk of pandemics thru pollution, decreasing quality of key natural resources - air/water/soil, deforestation, shinking habitats, unsustainable population levels, genetic engineering, wide spread use of harmful chemicals like pesticides/insecticides, dumping of radio-active wastes etc. These bring home a simple fact that nature is infinitely complex and sensitive, playing with it can affect us in ways beyond our comprehension. Pandemics is nature's way of re-establishing the equilibrium that was disturbed by humans. The sooner we start realizing this simple fact and start acting responsibly the better the chances of our future generations enjoying the quality of life that we enjoy today.

Here are some interesting links/articles on this topic:

Age of pandemics - Excellent article by Larry Brilliant in WSJ
Swine flu tracking map by

Pls let me know your thoughts and comments on the above!


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