World War Z, 28 Weeks Later, Outbreak, Contagion, The Bay . . . there’s no shortage of movies about infectious diseases (zombie or otherwise) ravaging the population. We seem to have fascination with the idea of epidemics, even while public knowledge about what’s actually going on in Worldwide Infectious Disease-ville is pretty scant.
The fact that the Obama administration just announced its commitment to provide more than $100 million to increase global biosecurity however, hints that the situation may be more urgent (zombies, run!) than we realized. The money will primarily go to increasing international cooperation dealing with infectious diseases, and to helping high-risk developing countries build infrastructure to prevent, detect, and respond to pandemic threats. U.S. health authorities warn that cross-border health risks are greater now than ever, citing factors such as globalization, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the threat of bioterrorism.
Just yesterday another person died from a new strain of avian flu in China; ever since the first death about a month ago, blood has been running high in how to avoid a devastating pestilence. Reportedly, the relationship between the U.S. and China in monitoring outbreak threats has vastly improved in the past 10 years or so; in 2003 China was widely criticized by the international community for its lack of transparency over the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak (remember that fun?!).
Given the frequency of news stories about potentially apocalyptic pandemics that rarely materialize, it’s easy to dismiss these types of concerns as delectable fodder for sci-fi rather than reality. But! Currently we're experiencing an increasingly rapid anti-vaccination movement in the West, and growing concern that young adults are letting their guard down regarding HIV infection—a disease that killed nearly half a million in the U.S. alone in the 1980s and 1990s, and the widespread over-use of antibiotics, both medically and in the food system.
Here' some perspective: Often overshadowed by the horrors of World War I is the Spanish flu pandemic that struck at the tail end of the conflict and was responsible for the majority of deaths during the war. The Spanish flu killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, and more Americans died of the flu than were killed in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam combined.
That sh*t is real people. And new research is arguing that new diseases may be cropping up from domestic animals (like swine and poultry and horses, not 'ol Fido) as opposed to migratory birds, which has been the longstanding theory.