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When Will a Deadly Pandemic Put an End to Worrying About Deadly Pandemics?

Fear-inducing headlines—kind of like this one—might not be such a bad thing.
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(Photo: ehrlif/Shutterstock)

(Photo: ehrlif/Shutterstock)

I spent a lot of time last week watching the NCAA tournament. Aside from seeing my bracket go down in flames by Saturday afternoon, I also caught the TNT promo for The Last Ship, give or take, 17 million times. The show, which premieres on June 22—this seems like a long way away to be featuring it so heavily, but what do I know about TV promotion?—follows "the crew of a lone naval destroyer [who] must find a way to pull humanity from the brink of extinction." The reason? A global pandemic that has killed more than 80 percent of Earth's population. The teaser features many worried faces seen through thick plastic suits, multiple open sores, and a lot of dramatic drama.

Freed from contemplating my abominable bracket, I was free to contemplate other matters of equal importance. Namely, are we all going to die because of some previously unknown super bug? I started reading. The Guardianpoints to our increasingly interconnected world as a concern because of the speed with which a pandemic would spread. The BBC simply wondered what happens if a global pandemic strikes, while Radio 4 boasts the subtlety named show, The Next Global Killer. In general, the Brits are on top of their horrifying virus game or at least the SEO-related matters involved.

Hype, in small doses, might not be the most dangerous thing in the world.

Not to be outdone, however, the Wall Street Journalhas been on the case since at least 2009: "Today, we remain underprepared for any pandemic or major outbreak, whether it comes from newly emerging infectious diseases, bioterror attack or laboratory accident." Cool story. There's even Pandemic: The Board Game, "a truly cooperative game where you all win or you all lose." You could spend a long time falling down the pandemic-related wormhole, and it would be detrimental to your mental, if not physical, health.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the possibility of an outbreak. But back to the original question: Are we all going to die?

Lord Rees thinks we might. In 2003, the head of Britain's Royal Society made a $1,000 bet—scientists being paid less well than Warren Buffett and all—that a bioterror attack or lab mistake would cost the world one million lives by 2020. So far, he has been wrong. SARS never broke out again after 2003. H1N1 stayed contained. No scientists have gone 12 Monkeys and unleashed an unstoppable force, either actively or by accident. This isn't to say that Rees won't be right—six years is a long time—but so far he is losing the bet. All things considered, it’s a good bet to lose.

I wonder if part of the reason Rees has been wrong is because of the overblown rhetoric regarding the so far non-existent bug that will kill all of humanity. It's an excellent premise for a show or a movie (or hey, a column), and these stories make for great (read: clickable) headlines in newspapers. “Witness: The Age of Pandemics” (WSJ); “A Deadly Disease Could Travel at Jet Speed Around the World. How Do We Stop It in Time?” (the Guardian); “Terror or Error: Is Humanity on the Eve of Destruction?” (the Guardian again, also my favorite of the bunch); “Anticipating the Next Pandemic” (The New York Times). Would you click on those? I mean, probably. Right? (I did.)

If you did and stayed long enough to read the pieces, you would find something interesting. Despite the headlines, most offer smart takes on an important topic. The New York Times piece, specifically, is a rational, well-argued take on the threats—both real and imagined—and a person's possible responses to them. "The concrete measures are limited by time, place and circumstance," writes David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. "The broader response is more basic: learn, absorb, understand. Don’t start trying to apply your knowledge until you have some."

We can't do much to prevent some sort of super bug emerging from the depths of the jungles. We can, however, take simple steps to help minimize the spread of disease. Over the past decade, we've seen a concentrated effort on the part of governments and health organizations around the world to put in place plans to do so on a massive scale, but also an increase in the efforts to educate the general population. We still aren't there, not close, but a ridiculously clickable headline in the Guardian could be beneficial. Hype, in small doses, might not be the most dangerous thing in the world.

On the disease front, there is plenty to worry about aside from a super bug virus. Tuberculosis is back. Polio is out there. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been found in 46 states. If you really want to be horrified, read this piece on how "bacteria are generous with their genes, sharing them even with members of other bacterial species" and then this on the future where antibiotics no longer work. That's scary.

Scary might be good. The underdogs were the story of this NCAA tournament. Humanity is still the favorite versus the super bug. The key for the near future is making sure it's more a 1-16 match-up than a 5-12.