Outbreak: Modern Parallels

In the 100 years since a flu strain single-handedly killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, much has changed. New research and technology gives us greater technical information about the pathogens around us and the way they’re spread. At EcoHealth Alliance, we’ve developed a map to determine which parts of the world are at greatest risk of disease spillover. This helps us direct research and resources where they’ll be most effective. Prevention methods like vaccines and treatments like Tamiflu have greatly reduced the risk of many infectious diseases including the flu and nearly eradicated many like smallpox and measles.

So why is it that a 100-year-old pandemic matters to us?

It Can Happen Again

Many of the circumstances which fanned the flames of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic have changed. The average person knows far more about health and safety than they did a century ago. And scientific knowledge has greatly expanded as well.

But we continue to put ourselves in harm’s way. A frightening 60 percent of all new and emerging infectious diseases–Ebola, Nipah, SARS, MERS, Zika–originate in animals. Yet we are coming into more frequent contact with wild animals than perhaps ever before in the modern era. Millions of acres of forest are cut down each year and, without their natural habitat, animals are forced to relocate closer to, and sometimes within, towns. The illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar underground industry which not only leads to the species extinction, but also can spread pathogens around the world.

Land-use change like deforestation is responsible for as many as 31 percent of all new and emerging disease outbreaks. SARS’ global spread–the first pandemic of the 21st century–has been traced back to markets selling wild animals in southern China.

We truly cannot separate human, animal, and environmental health. We call that idea One Health.

One Health

It’s a Small World After All

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic would likely not have killed nearly as many people as it did, had it not been for World War I. Continual troop movement between nations provided ample opportunity for the virus to spread globally.

While commercial air travel was very much in its infancy at the time, now a person can get all the way around the world in a day. Globalization provides a very similar, in fact far more efficient, pathway for pathogens to spread.

There are, of course, myriad benefits to closer contact and sustained relationships between people of all nations, races, and creeds; isolationism is not the answer. And so we’ve developed tools like FLIRT which allow us to analyze flight patterns and predict where infected passengers would most likely transport a virus after an outbreak begins. When it comes to pandemic threat, forewarned is absolutely forearmed.

We have seen quite recently just how quickly this can become a problem. Only two months passed in 2009 between the isolation of yet another H1N1 flu strain (though not the same one that caused the 1918 pandemic) and its official designation by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. By the time it was over, that pandemic had cost between $45 and $55 billion dollars to the global economy.

While it may seem that we’ve made major strides–and we have–since 1918, the threat of a pandemic still looms large. And that’s where we come in at EcoHealth Alliance.

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