There are plenty of successes in our battle against disease already. We already know how to do this.
150,000 doctors from around the world worked on a common cause to eradicate horrible and disfiguring disease that killed three out of every ten people it infected. They succeeded in 1980. Smallpox no longer exists on the planet.
Once a leading killer of children, three strains of virologically distinct polio caused untold horrible suffering, paralysis and death. It has nearly been entirely wiped out by global vaccination efforts by millions of doctors.
Type 2 was eradicated back in 2015. The World Health Organization announced last case of type 3 polio in northern Nigeria in 2012 and the virus hasn’t been seen since. A polio virus can be considered eradicated if it hasn’t been detected for three years.
Today, only type 1 remains at large — in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it’s eradicated, polio will join smallpox as one of two human scourges wiped off the face of the planet.
In 1997 there was an outbreak of bird flu – H5N1 in Hong Kong. A remarkable doctor who saw what could have been a horrible pandemic responded immediately and slaughtered 1.5 million chickens and birds to stop the outbreak in its tracks before it could significantly spread to humans.
GFIN out of Ottawa identified unexplained illnesses; high fevers among children that looked like bird flu and they reported it to WHO. They did it with an up until then novel notion of crawling the web as a means of early detection. That’s how the world found out about SARS and finally got ahead of it.
Dedicated immunologists, doctors, scientist and researchers; people in a common cause to better the human condition, need only have the tools and funding to do this vital work. These are the people our leaders need to pay closer attention to.
In 2006, Larry Brilliant gave a Ted Talk in which he extolled the efforts of the World Health Organization and millions of doctors to combat and eradicate deadly diseases. He also gave a warning which now seems eerily prescient wherein he described what the next pandemic would look like, using the bird flu which, at the time, WHO had deemed as Phase 3 in their pandemic alert, or “no or very limited human-to-human transmission.”
“The key to preventing or mitigating pandemic bird flu is early detection and rapid response,” he said.
He went on to detail the harrowing results if we didn’t pull together around the world to do this and the flu moved to Phase 6, or, then defined as “efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission.”
“As many as 165 million people would die. There would be a global recession and depression, and the cost to our economy of $1 to $3 trillion would be far worse for everyone than merely 100 million people dying, because so many more people would lose their jobs and their health care benefits, that the consequences are almost unthinkable.”
He knows what he’s talking about. He worked with the World Health Organization in the effort to end smallpox. He has fought flu, polio, and blindness. He led Google’s non-profit wing, Google.org; and was the senior technical advisor for the pandemic horror film Contagion.
“The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn't a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when,” he said in a recent interview with Steven Levy of Wired.
“It's really hard to get people to listen. (This is) the most dangerous pandemic in our lifetime.”
This is a novel virus, which means no human being in the world that has immunity as a result of having had it before. That means it’s potentially capable of infecting anyone on the planet if we don’t put measures in place to control its spread and build “herd immunity”.
“Once a large enough quantity of us have caught the disease and become immune, and we have a vaccine. The combination creates what immunologists call create herd immunity, which means around 70 or 80 percent,” said Brilliant.
Before that, we must slow it down, or “flatten” the infection spike. “By slowing it down or flattening it, we're not going to decrease the total number of cases, we're going to postpone many cases, until we get a vaccine in 12 to 18 months.”
Larry Brilliant is now 75 years old, and Steven Levy asked him if he was afraid of this pandemic, seeing as he (Brilliant) is among the highest at risk population.
“I firmly believe that the steps that we're taking will extend the time that it takes for the virus to make the rounds. I think that, in turn, will increase the likelihood that we will have a vaccine, or we will have a prophylactic antiviral in time to cut off, reduce, or truncate the spread.
Everybody needs to remember: This is not a zombie apocalypse. It's not a mass extinction event.”
Watch his full TED talk from 2006. You will be astonished by what we’ve been able to avoid due to immediate detection and immediate response. Way back then, he was calling for a new global system that can identify and contain pandemics before they spread.
Sounds like an excellent idea.