Darwin had it right. Life is truly the survival of the fittest. And one battle, in particular, has been ongoing since the beginning of life as we know it. Humanity versus pathogens. The spread of widespread disease among populations is not new. However, the threat of future epidemics today is far more severe than those of the past. A number of developments have all culminated in increasing the threat of future epidemics substantially. And if something is not done to protect us from widespread disease, major catastrophes may be inevitable. If there was a time for bold businesses to step up to the plate, now would be the time.
The Scary Reality of a Global Epidemic Threat
The threat of future epidemics or pandemics is not something new. Epidemics and widespread disease in the past have devastated human populations. For example, smallpox killed between 300 and 500 million people. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed nearly 100 million around the globe. And AIDS has resulted in the death of 40 million people (currently 1.03 million a year) since it first appeared.
These statistics fail to depict the tremendous amount of morbidity associated with widespread disease among those who didn’t die. As powerful as these figures are, the threat of a future epidemic affecting millions today is even greater.
Bill Gates is actively involved in evaluating and advocating for efforts to protect societies against future epidemics through his foundation. Based on his research, he suggests that a future epidemic catastrophe is more than 50 percent likely in his lifetime.
Based on computer simulations, one infected person could trigger widespread disease in 25,000 people within a week. These figures then increase to 700,000 within a month and to 300 million within six months. Based on these models, as many as 30 million deaths could occur within half a year. Without aggressive action, the ability to deter or address a major future epidemic today simply does not—and will not—exist.
Why Is the Threat of Future Epidemics Advancing?
Concerning the risk of future epidemics, our current situation represents a perfect storm for widespread disease. The following depicts an array of developments that together dramatically make future epidemics even more likely:
- Rapidly increasing global populations – Growth in global populations means rising urbanization trends. This fact places people in greater contact with one another, promoting widespread disease and infection. Likewise, it puts constraints on healthy water, sanitation and food sources, all of which also heighten risk.
- Deforestation effects – Clearing land of forests and trees exposes human populations to an increased likelihood for animal contact. Zoonotic diseases that may cause future epidemics will likely increase as a result.
- Global warming and climate change – Global warming and climate change promote the risk of future epidemics. New pathogens are likely to develop in new climates while the instance of mosquitos spreading into new regions will likely occur.
- Advances in transportation – Over 10 million people travel by plane daily—resulting to 3.5 billion flights per year. This case rapidly enlarges the scope of widespread disease throughout the world, which can lead to a higher chance in the development of future epidemics.
- New pathogen formation – Since the middle of the 20th century, the number of new pathogens has more than tripled. In fact, the number of new organisms is currently expanding faster than ever before. Any of these could be the cause of future epidemics globally.
- Rapidly advancing antibiotic resistance – Two million people in the U.S. alone now get infections from antibiotic-resistant organisms each year. Some estimates suggest that deaths from antibiotic resistance may number to 10 million people per year by 2050.
Wanted: Bold Ideas, Bold Leaders, Bold Actions
Given the significant threat of future epidemics, solutions are desperately needed. Unfortunately, denial and complacency can interfere with bold efforts required—as can financial insufficiency and self-interest.
For example, pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Allergan have stopped research and development for new antibiotics. The lack of profits has deterred their interests in this area. These realities highlight the need for new strategies and innovations if future epidemics are to be effectively managed.
Many opportunities exist for organizations and institutions willing to take strides against future epidemics. Early detection and data surveillance systems are being developed to better identify, categorize and predict evolving patterns of widespread disease. Enhanced rapid response systems and communication networks are being considered as well. Additional measures, such as vaccination development, production, and storage solutions, are being contemplated. Also, the combination of antibiotic therapies and bacteriophage treatments reflect active scientific explorations.
Overall, worldwide expenditures related to the control of widespread disease is roughly $50 billion. This figure fails to include indirect costs, which veritably raise this figure to $100 billion. However, a fraction of this amount spent on detection, prevention and countermeasures could be more effective in addressing the harrowing possibility of widespread disease.
The key is identifying which measures are most cost-effective and productive in managing future epidemics. Bold businesses and institutions that embrace this challenge stand not only to contribute greatly to world health, but also to realize tremendous success in the process.