Readers of the Bible are quite familiar with the concept of plagues. After all, the Ten Plagues in the book of Exodus details calamities ranging from hail, water, and darkness to lice, frogs, and locusts being unleashed upon Egypt. History buffs know about the plagues in Europe, from The Pestilence in the 14th century to the Black Death in the 1600s.
But could such a wide outbreak of disease occur in modern times?
The answer is yes - and it could potentially occur on a truly global scale.
A "Perfect Storm" of Conditions
That's because the circumstances that exist today are more conducive to spreading plagues than they were hundreds of years ago. To begin with, there are plenty of areas in the world where squalor and disease are rampant, and these "plague incubators" contain numerous fleas, rodents, and other infection-transmitting creatures.
Because of the frequency of air travel, these plagues can easily be spread thousands of miles away to different parts of the globe. And since diseases like pneumonic plague are less common than they were centuries ago, modern physicians and healthcare workers are not trained to spot them in their initial stages (for example, pneumonic plague is regularly misdiagnosed as the flu).
Finally, a gradual buildup of antibiotic-resistance strains of bacteria and germs has hindered the treatment of these deadly diseases.
Outbreaks in Modern Times
This combination of conditions has led to several outbreaks of various diseases in recent decades. Among them:
·SARS infected over 8,200 people in the middle of last decade, resulting in some 775 deaths. Experts say that only "dumb luck" prevented a major SARS outbreak in the U.S. when an infected doctor from Singapore was allowed to leave New York before becoming symptomatic.
·Hundreds of people in China and nearby nations died as a result of the H5N1 virus, which is more commonly known as bird flu. Officials believe that the virus passed from infected poultry to humans who were handling the birds.
·A mosquito-borne illness called Chikungunya, which causes flu-like symptoms and chronic muscle aches, has killed over 90,000 people in East Africa and islands in the Indian Ocean. In 2007, researchers reported seeing up to 1,000 cases of Chikungunya in patients in America and Europe who had visited the infected regions.
·An outbreak of pneumonic plague was narrowly averted in Grand Canyon National Park in late 2007, when a wildlife biologist died after presumably becoming infected by the disease when examining a mountain lion carcass. Even with timely antibiotic treatment (i.e., within 24 hours), pneumonic plague is estimated to have a death rate of as high as 50%.
Is There Anything That Can Be Done?
The silver lining is that there are some initiatives being launched to address the possibility of a global pandemic. The philanthropic arm of search engine giant Google contributed $15 million in grants to epidemic researchers who are trying to identify potential disease "hot spots" so they can be contained before they spread globally.
As for individuals, the best advice to avoid contracting deadly diseases is to wash hands frequently, get the required vaccinations before traveling abroad, and refrain from abuse or overuse of antibiotics to prevent becoming resistant to them.
For those who tend to worry about this topic, there is an outbreak incidence map which keeps track of the current known plagues and diseases around the world. And while people living in developed nations probably have more pressing worries than guarding against a global plague, it's wise to keep in mind that they are not immune from such outbreaks or pandemics.
Chris Martin is a freelance writer about topics ranging from auto insurance to consumer finance to gutter guards.