Warning: This column will frighten you. Keep away from young children.
Think terrorism is the world's biggest threat? It's a nasty one, all right. A nightmare scenario would see nuclear capabilities falling into terrorists' hands.
But, short of the nuclear/terrorist nexus, the world's biggest threat isn't terrorism. It's flu. Yes, flu.
Occasionally, a newspaper article appears about some Chinese or Vietnamese village getting hit by bird flu, or what scientists call the H5N1 virus. We read the article. Our eyes pass on to something nearer to home.
Take a look at the current issue of Foreign Affairs, where four articles describe the worldwide threat of a flu pandemic. Or a recent issue of Nature. Your hair might stand on end.
About two weeks ago, it was reported that wild birds were dropping dead in a remote area of northwestern China. So what? Well, the birds in that area migrate thousands of miles. Early tests show that the dead birds suffered from the same H5N1 flu strain that forced the slaughter of millions of chickens and killed 54 people in Southeast Asia.
That's the thing about flu. It can travel fast, and it can be virulent. By the time a vaccine is produced, many people in infected areas can die.
SARS showed how fast diseases can travel. Once SARS appeared in China, people in five countries were infected within 24 hours, and in 30 countries within several months; 43 people died in Canada. The Canadian Tourism Commission estimated that SARS cost the economy $419-million. The cost to Ontario's health-care system exceeded $700-million.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council, looking ahead to 2020, says a global pandemic is the single most important threat to the global economy. The growing literature about the likelihood of a pandemic, probably a flu one, is filled with quasi-apocalyptic material: millions dead, billions of dollars of commerce disrupted, serious security risks.
Michael Osterholm, a U.S. public-health expert, writes: "A pandemic is coming. It could be caused by H5N1 or by another novel [flu]strain. It could happen tonight, next year, or even 10 years from now." The number of poultry and wildlife that carry the strain(s) has exploded. Should these deadly strains get into the human food chain, watch out.
The damnable thing about these flu viruses is that they change, so just when you think science has got ahead of one deadly strain, it transmutes into something else.
That's what's happened, and is still happening, to the H5N1 strain. It has spread to poultry, ducks, herons, pigs, wild birds and, in some cases, humans. The terrible fear is that flu strains will spread human to human.
Think about Asian food markets: crowded, noisy and often rather dirty. Think, too, about Asians' preference for buying fowl or meat at markets, then bringing their purchases home for slaughter and cooking. It's a recipe for spreading trouble.
A pandemic of Asian flu, or some other strain, might kill millions of people. The 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic killed 20 million to 40 million people, and the world's population has skyrocketed since then. So has the ability of people to move around the world.
Vaccines can be developed to inoculate people against flu strains. But they change, and vaccine manufacturers struggle to catch up.
Some countries such as the U.S., Vietnam and Canada are beginning to stockpile vaccines. Would these supplies be enough? Whatever the answer, there would not be nearly enough vaccines for the 6.2 billion people in the world. Developing countries would be the most exposed, since their ability to produce or procure vaccines would be limited.
The World Health Organization is working mightily to improve international preparatory efforts (see its website). But the WHO budget is only $400-million (U.S.). Other countries, including Canada, are ramping up preparatory efforts, but, if the doomsday experts are even close to being correct, even the best-prepared countries might still be underprepared.
Like the threat of terrorism, nothing might happen for long periods of time. In some parts of the world, a flu pandemic, like terrorism, might never occur. But, then again, it might, with terrible consequences.
Governments have no choice, therefore, but to prepare for the worst, hoping that a flu pandemic never arrives.