The Big One

The H1N1 (aka “swine flu”) outbreak of 2009 may not have lived up to the media hype in terms of overall fatalities, but it reminded us the next big pandemic might just be a super bug away.

Pandemics—infectious diseases that move through the human population and over large areas of the world—have occurred throughout history. The mere mention of words like Black Death, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria conjure up images of pain and suffering.

While advances in modern medicine are happen-ing daily, the opportunity for new outbreaks is also increasing. Poor sanitation and lack of health infrastructures certainly play a role, but other factors compound the risk. As Katey Pelican, professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine and part of a major new global health initiative sponsored by USAID, recently stated during a presentation at the Institute on the Environment, “People and animals are increasingly moving around the world, and in doing so we’re unknowingly moving an additional form of life, too. This is the micro-biome and we know very little about it.”

If we counted up all the people who are crossing international borders on an average day, they would represent the 10th largest country in the world. As more and more people and products criss-cross the globe by land, air and sea, the opportunities for global pandemics will increase.

Here we highlight some of the deadliest influenza outbreaks of the past century and a half, show the major modes of disease transmission, and reveal how a virus becomes a global pandemic.

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The Big One