Are we losing the battle against ever stronger germs. Can our new super drugs fight these superbugs?
BY GREG CALLIGARO for YOU Pulse magazine
Imagine this: public places are deserted, empty trains pull in and out of stations and the few passengers who dare brave public transport look around suspiciously from behind surgical masks.
At airports security officials scan incoming passengers with thermal imaging cameras to identify possibly infected people by the telltale infrared glow of fever.
In the suburbs those suspected of having had contact with killer germs are kept under virtual house arrest: quarantined at home under video surveillance and marked with electronic tags to monitor their movements.
A cough or a sniff by a stranger arouses panic – because death is now airborne and it’s all around. These chilling images sound as if they’re from the latest sci-fi movie – but in fact they’re very real scenarios experienced in Asian cities such as Bangkok and Singapore during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.
Originating in China’s Guangdong province this virus sparked worldwide panic, infecting more than 8 000 people and resulting in 774 deaths from Asia to North America.
Yet in many respects we got off lightly: the disease disappeared quietly before it could become a truly global pandemic and by taking rapid action doctors managed to contain the outbreak.
Experts say we may not be so fortunate the next time a killer bug strikes, warning that conditions are right today for the emergence and spread of such a germ.
‘‘A virus lives within a 24-hour plane ride from every city on Earth,’’ Richard Preston writes in his bestselling book The Hot Zone.
‘‘Once it hits the airline network it can go anywhere in a day – Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles – anywhere where planes fly.’’
Thanks to international jet travel people infected with a disease can carry their inadvertent ‘‘passengers’’ to distant lands – or home to their families – before the first symptoms even start to appear.
New diseases on the rise
But it’s not just the speed of modern-day international travel that has made conditions ripe for a global pandemic. Several other human activities have led to the emergence and spread of new diseases.
The destruction of rainforests and encroachment on wildlife habitats, together with the construction of new villages and housing developments in rural areas, have brought people into contact with a wide range of wild animals – and the previously unknown microbes they carry.
Changes in agriculture, such as the introduction of new crops, has attracted new crop pests and exposed farming communities to previously unknown diseases.
And the rapid growth of cities in many developing countries has resulted in large numbers of people living in crowded areas with poor sanitation. In conditions such as these contagious illnesses have a field day.
(This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in YOU Pulse /Huisgenoot-POLS magazine, Autumn 2008. Buy the latest copy, on newsstands now, for more fascinating stories from the world of health and wellness.)
Killer germs on the loose