THIS year, marks the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic.
Spanish flu is probably the worst pandemic in human history. Nearly one-third of the planet’s population were infected and between 20 million and 50 million innocent lives were taken.
Human beings have always lived in an unpredictable world threatened by both natural and man-made disasters. We strive for survival, as do all living organisms including bacteria and even viral particles. This competitive relationship can go unbalanced, and sometimes nature will fight back with a vengeance.
An epidemic happens when an infectious disease spirals out of control, spreading to a large number of people within a short period of time. If transmission continues on a global scale, it is known as a pandemic.
In February this year, elite scientists from the World Heath Organization (WHO) were sounding the alarm about an impending pandemic known as “Disease X”. Along with Disease X are a number of familiar killer diseases like Zika, Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
So what is Disease X? An acronym for the next pandemic, it represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently not known to cause human disease.
It is projected that Disease X has the ability to kill millions of souls any time from now.
Well, we were lucky enough to be able to contain Zika, Ebola and SARS in the past before they had any chance of turning into real pandemics. But how long from now will we see another killer disease?
The answer is any time, according to Dr Greg Poland, a virologist who claimed that another global flu crisis was “100%” certain. “We will have another pandemic. What’s unpredictable is the severity of it,” he said.
He was implying that the flu virus might be the top causative agent of the next pandemic. This makes perfect sense, as flu viruses routinely undergo random mutations that give them the ability to evade our immune system, rendering vaccines useless and outdated. Given that flu viruses spread via air droplets, they can proliferate real fast.
What can we do to protect ourselves then?
For the public, taking care of personal hygiene, especially hand hygiene, is crucial in preventing any type of contact-based contagious disease. Learning and practising the proper steps in hand-washing are crucial to ward off potential illnesses.
Secondly, get yourselves educated on any recent outbreaks before you travel to any country. Normally, travel advisories from the United States or the British government would be informative and comprehensive enough for this purpose.
If possible, get yourselves vaccinated according to the latest recommendations.
For governments, rapid information exchange and immediate dissemination to the public are essential to curb a contagious disease in its infancy.
Total transparency is necessary as diseases today spread globally at great speeds.
To conclude, Disease X is now a known unknown among the health experts. It is a time bomb waiting to explode.
The question is, are we ready for it?
DR JAMES WOON SY-KEEN
Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia
Iskandar Puteri, Johor