When it comes to diseases, people pay too much attention whatever snazzy new outbreak is dominating the news. Zika, Ebola, SARS … they’re all just flavors of the month. The MVP of slowly killing mankind is the regular old flu, and with each warm forehead and missed school day, it’s getting better at wiping us out. Since the Spanish Flu, there hasn’t been a decade without some panic over a new influenza strain. Right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the most threatening flu strain for a global pandemic to be H7N9, which has recently broken out in China.
Another bird flu — big deal, right?
Except that the really real Spanish Flu also jumped to humans from birds. For reference, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was the worst global disease outbreak since the Black Death, and easily one of the worst in history. It killed up to five percent of the world’s population, and the only reason it doesn’t occupy a lot of space in high school history books is because it got overshadowed by another disaster happening at the time: World War I. Leave it to humans to be self-absorbed when it comes to wiping out humans.
Since 2013, 1,364 people have come down with H7N9, and 40% of them have died, mainly from respiratory and organ failure. While we’re busy not caring about it, it’s getting better at spreading among humans. But even if this one doesn’t catch on, the next one will. Or the next one. The flu itself isn’t the big problem, it’s that we’re completely unprepared for another big pandemic.
For one thing, the world has a much higher population today than it did a century ago, which means that there are more of us packed more closely together, making us a flu version of an all-you-can-eat buffet. We also travel much more easily than we used to, which means that diseases have a much easier time getting around the world quickly. On top of that, the systems in place to prevent such tragedies have grown so complacent about the risks that, as evidenced by the Ebola situation, they’re slow to act.
In short, if another Spanish Flu broke out tomorrow, we best make World War III as spectacular as possible – that way we can at least go out with a bang.