The woman tasked with safeguarding the health of the world, World Health Organisation director-general Margaret Chan, says a major global infectious disease outbreak could be just around the corner and we are woefully under-prepared to deal with it.
“What we are seeing now looks more and more like a dramatic resurgence of the threat from emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Chan told the World Health Assembly.
“The world is not prepared to cope.”
It’s a stark warning in a time when epidemics like the recent Zika virus, Ebola, avian flu and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) have sent shock throughout the world, but Chan says the worst may be yet to come.
“Changes in the way humanity inhabits the planet have given the volatile microbial world multiple new opportunities to exploit. There will always be surprises,” she says.
Given how things are in today’s world, it’s not surprising experts are saying pandemics have the potential to spread quickly thanks to planes and transport hubs.
There have been many simulations highlighting just how quickly a single person can spread a new infection in another city on another continent– it’s a matter of hours — and from there the rest of the world would follow. It’s frightening stuff.
Evidence of this occurred in May 2015, when a 68-year-old man returned to South Korea and unknowingly brought MERS into the country. The outbreak he triggered caused 36 deaths, shut down roughly 2,000 schools, and had a significant impact on tourism and the country’s economy.
Chan has highlighted a number of pressing issues on the global health agenda, such as drug-resistant pathogens including the growing number of ‘superbugs’ and infectious diseases causing new concerns because they travel well internationally in people, animals and food.
“A single meal nowadays, can contain ingredients from all around the world, including some potentially contaminated with exotic pathogens,” Chan says.
Although it’s been nearly 100 years since Australia had a full-blown pandemic, then the Spanish flu of 1918, scientists are saying the next ‘big one’ is much less a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Chan says that if left unchecked these “slow motion disasters” will eventually reach tipping point. The harm then would be irreversible.
In the last 40 years there have been approximately 40 new infections, which have mostly been transmitted by animals or insects says Dr Sanjaya Senanayake.
He says the accessibility of global travel has seen more than 1 billion people crossing international borders every year so infections have the potential to spread anywhere and at any time.
Dr Senanayake gives the impression that the “horse has bolted” when it comes to the global ability to treat any pandemic with antibiotics.
“If we continue on our current course, by 2050 there will be an excess of 300 million deaths due to antibiotic resistance,” the infectious disease expert says.
The world needs new weapons in the fight against infection.