It could take just one cough, one kiss, one touch or even one bite to change not only your life, but the lives of everyone around you — and for months or even years.
Public health experts believe we are at greater risk than ever of experiencing large-scale outbreaks and global pandemics like those we’ve seen before: SARS, swine flu, Ebola and Zika.
Every time, the infection’s arrival is unexpected and its scale unprecedented, leaving the world vulnerable.
Experts are unanimous in the belief that the next outbreak contender will most likely be a surprise — and we need to be ready.
“We’re only as secure in the world as the weakest country,” said Jimmy Whitworth, professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. With so many health systems and economies in a fragile state, this means we are far from secure.
“Infectious diseases respect no boundaries,” he said. The World Health Organization is alerted to hundreds of small outbreaks every month, he noted, which it investigates and uses to predict the chances of a bigger problem.
“There are little clusters of outbreaks occurring all the time, all over the place,” Whitworth said.
But with infections disregarding borders and their battle lines against humans drawn, he believes the way we live today is what opens us up to risk.
“(Many) aspects of modern life put us at more risk. We are more ready than before,” he points out, highlighting the International Health Regulations Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and countries with national rapid response teams — such as the United States, UK and China — ready to tackle any emergency.
“But the stakes keep getting raised,” he said. Here’s why.
1. Growing populations and urbanization
The facts around urban living are simple: You live, eat, work and move closer to people than in any rural setting, and with this comes greater opportunity for disease to spread through air, mosquitoes or unclean water. As populations grow, so will the number of city-dwellers, with the United Nations predicting that 66% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050.
2. Encroaching into new environments
As numbers of people grow, so does the amount of land needed to house them. Populations expand into previously uninhabited territories, such as forests. With new territories comes contact with new animals and, inevitably, new infections.
3. Climate change
Evidence continues to emerge that climate change is resulting in greater numbers of heat waves and flooding events, bringing more opportunity for waterborne diseases such as cholera and for disease vectors such as mosquitoes in new regions.
4. Global travel
International tourist arrivals reached a record of almost 1.2 billion in 2015, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, 50 million more than 2014. It was the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth. And with greater numbers moving at all times come greater options for infections to hop a ride.
5. Civil conflict
“If a health system cannot handle (an outbreak), there’s pandemonium,” Heymann said. He believes that poor hygiene is not a valid excuse anywhere, even in developing settings, as sterilization and hand-washing are straightforward.
6. Fewer doctors and nurses in outbreak regions
Beyond weak health systems, countries where outbreaks are more likely to occur — namely, more developing settings — also have fewer doctors and nurses to treat the population. Most have left for better prospects elsewhere.
7. Faster information
Faster communication raises the risk of panic. More than 90% of the population will be covered by mobile broadband networks by 2021, according to the UN. Instant communication everywhere raises the possibility that false rumors will spread during a crisis. Worst case: Fearful rumors may trigger panic, which might hinder key institutions like stock markets and emergency responders.