It's odd: you can worry about meteors and cosmic explosions all you want, but the biggest killer of all times is already here -- and is doing fine. In fact, life's oldest and most deadly enemy is preparing for yet another devastating attack on the human race. Diseases -- don't ever underestimate them.
Humans and germs have always lived side by side. But every once and a while, the germs attack. Then, suddenly, there's AIDS, or SARS, or what-have-you.
And SARS is still a relatively mild, merciful disease. The Black Plague killed hundreds of millions of people, at its high-day ridding Europe of a quarter of its population. The Spanish flu that ran rampant in 1918 killed twenty to forty million men, quadrupling the death toll of World War One. In the US alone, the epidemic killed more people than World War II, the Korean war and the Vietnam war combined.
Sure, our doctors like to reassure us that everything is under control by now. No offense -- but that's a lie. The grim reality is that our world is more vulnerable to disease than ever.
That's because our world is so densely populated. Intensive agriculture brings humans closer to animal pathogens. And people themselves are a sociable species, constantly interacting with each other, and traveling around the globe all of the time.
Nothing new with SARS: In 1918, the whole world carried masks as the flu suddenly went berserk.
And the diseases? Haven't we seen them all by now? And cured them? Well: we haven't. The big problem is that viruses and microbes aren't inert, lifeless things. They live. And like all that lives, they evolve.
That's why there will always be new diseases. Evolution constantly throws new, lethal germs at us. Suddenly, some innocent animal virus 'jumps' the species barrier and begins to slaughter humans. AIDS started out as an innocent monkey disease, the Spanish flu of 1918 jumped from pigs to humans, Ebola probably comes from bats and SARS is closely related to a virus that lives in ducks and cows.
And don't look now: this 'jumping' happens all the time. Apart from SARS, AIDS and Ebola, recent years saw the coming of exotic, lethal germs like the Marburg virus, the Sin Nombre virus ('virus without a name'), Lassa fever, Nipah virus and Hendra virus - to mention only a few. And it isn't exactly comforting to know that some diseases kill virtually everyone they infect - like AIDS.
Or consider the flu. Say 'influenza', and you tend to think of a mild disease. But in fact, the flu is by far the most lethal opponent of human life on Earth. In it's lethal, 'Spanish Flu' form, influenza causes you to die a horrible death. No, you just DON'T want to know the details.
Ok, you do. In a matter of days, you'll see your hands and feet turn black, as they literally begin to rot away. You'll cough up blood and lung tissue. You'll have seizures and hallucinations, as the fever boils your brains. And in the end, you'll slowly drown, as your lungs are filled with slime and discharge. "Terrible names were whispered", a witness to the 1918 epidemic wrote. "This was not influenza. This was a plague. The world was coming to an end."
Clearly, there's no underestimating influenza. The virus is highly contagious, incurable and can kill up to ninety percent of those infected. And it is the fastest evolving thing we know of. This makes it move frighteningly fast, constantly jumping from one species to the other.
In 1997, 1998 and early 2003, new strains of influenza jumped from chickens to humans in Hong Kong, killing eight people in total. In April 2003, another bird flu strain contaminated eight people and killed one in Holland. In all cases we were lucky: the flu didn't combine with a human flu virus, turning it into a virus that's contagious for men.
But it is a matter of time before it does. Then, we'll have a monster on our backs. SARS, anthrax and smallpox could be just flimsy colds, compared to the next strain of killer flu. In fact, the new strain of 2003 is still very active today, in Asia. Virologists are really worried.
Virus Busters: More Ebola-like killer outbreaks likely await us
And if that didn't frighten you yet, there's the eerie possibility that a notorious `old' disease such as the measles, cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox or, yes, the Black Plague suddenly makes a comeback. A lot of germs are about to become resistant to drugs such as antibiotics. This is one of the BIG concerns of medicine today. In Japan and in Africa, the first strains of `invulnerable' superbacteria have already made some victims.
One of them is MRSA, a notorious hospital bacterium that is resistant to most antibiotics. Luckily, it is a rather obscure bacterium, that usually hits the sick and the elderly. Then, in early 2003, something really awful happened. Suddenly, MRSA started to infect the healthy, causing terrible sores and abscesses.
And you don't want to get the latest version of tuberculosis, either. Running rampant in Eastern Europe, this super-tuberculosis is so resistant to drugs, it is very hard to treat.
With diseases, it's like beetling about in a minefield. You can take a few steps -- but the next step, you could suddenly kick the bucket. And the bad thing is: no-one knows when, where and how it will go wrong.
However, there's one small comfort. It is very unlikely a disease will wipe out the human race altogether. No matter how massive the attack of the germs is, there will always be individuals around that are somehow fit enough to fight the disease -- and survive. Well, at least that's how things went until now.
Never trust a cold: Occasionally, evolution turns the influenza virus into a mass killer
On the other hand, it doesn't really help that humans themselves sometimes create a new disease in the laboratory. Early 2002, an Australian research team turned a quite harmless virus into a fearsome killer by sheer mistake. It literally killed everything it infected. Gladly, the Frankenstein Virus didn't make it out of the lab and into the land of the living. But the incident gives a taste of what can go wrong when you do genetic engineering on viruses.
And no, you DON'T want to think of what might happen if some mad dictator or terrorist decides to find out what happens when you upgrade anthrax a little bit, or pieces together an airborne version of the Ebola-virus.
One way or the other, it is almost certain there will another outbreak of some kind of killing disease somewhere. The twentieth century saw the Spanish Flu, AIDS, Ebola and many, many other, less heard-of epidemics. What will the 21st century bring? Let's hope we can at least blame nature for the damage, and don't have to learn that some careless scientist made a horrible mistake.
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