Virulence – the ability of a microorganism to infect or damage a host
Pandemic – the worldwide spread of a new disease
Throughout history, infectious disease outbreaks have been known to occur regularly. Occasionally, a pathogen will emerge that is extremely virulent, giving it the potential to become a pandemic. 100 years ago, at the end of the first world war, a seasonal flu emerged that went on to be cited as one of the most devastating pandemics in History. This outbreak, known as Spanish Flu is estimated to have infected around a third of the world’s population and was exceptionally deadly, proceeding to kill more than the war itself. We can’t predict when the next pandemic will happen, only that it is inevitable. So how could a disease as virulent as the Spanish flu effect the world today?
Unfortunately, many developments to modern society have actually increased the ease at which pathogens can spread through the population. Firstly, the world’s extreme population growth in the last century along with the increased movement to urban areas has brought people closer together. This proximity greatly increases the spread of pathogens directly between infected individuals who can easily travel across borders and oceans due to the popularity of air travel. Environmental factors such as climate change can also act as an advantage for certain pathogens. Outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera often occur after flooding and the increase in global temperatures expand the survival range of malaria transmitting mosquitos into unprepared populations. Finally, due to progression in technology, information can be spread almost instantly. This isn’t always a good thing as false information can be easily propagated and often lead to a state of panic.
So how do we ensure that the World is prepared for the next pandemic? It is strongly believed that in cases of emerging diseases, early detection and early interventions are key. The Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) was created for this reason. It searches the internet for any evidence that may indicate a potential outbreak, allowing it to be investigated and contained as early as possible. Vaccines are created yearly to protect the most vulnerable in society against seasonal flu outbreaks, but vaccines will not available fast enough to stop the spread of new pathogens. Therefore, it is important that governments have strict plans in place for how we will respond to the next pandemic. It is often stated that in the instance of a pandemic, the world is only as safe as it’s weakest country. This is because an outbreak could occur anywhere in the world and must be contained as soon as possible. To create the most effective disease containment strategies, it is important to predict how they may spread.
Recent advances in technology may actually have a positive influence on the way we handle a pandemic. In 2017, the BBC launched Contagion!, an app which allows the public to get involved with the efforts to study disease transmission. Participants who download the app are carriers of a ‘digital pathogen’ and tracked via GPS to within 1km2 for a 24-hour period. At the end of the day, participants are to report how many people they have come in to close contact with throughout the study. The data from this study will be analysed by researchers and used to improve the accuracy of mathematical systems that are currently used to predict disease spread.
Want to learn more about pandemics or even contribute to the BBC’s study? Here are some links to get you started:
Visit the BBC Four Pandemic website for clips for their recently aired documentary here
Alternatively, learn more about pandemic transmission through the perspective of the pathogen itself!
Plague inc. is a strategy game where your aim is to create the deadliest, most infectious pathogen you can with the aim of wiping out the human race.