It’s not likely China’s coronavirus will turn into a global pandemic, but the potential for its rapid spread shows what a knife-edge humanity is on.
Along with this latest strain of coronavirus, SARS, Ebola, zika and other viruses have given us a scare in recent years with their potential for rapid spread. Unchecked, any of these viruses could be devastating.
If you’re doubting that, there’s probably no better example than the Spanish flu pandemic in the early years of the 20th century. It raged around the world from 1918 to 1920 and while there are no firm numbers for the epidemic, estimates are that 500 million people were infected and up to 50 million, possibly more, died.
One of the major reasons we’re no longer afraid of influenza is that we have effective vaccines for most strains. A yearly shot for each of us and the chances of the flu being able to spread are greatly reduced — to the benefit of everyone.
There isn’t always going to be a vaccine available, though. Work on an effective vaccine against Ebola, for example, is ongoing. And there is no guarantee that a new, virulent, strain of influenza might develop where a vaccine is less effective.
New viruses and new strains of old ones will continue to pop up, and hopefully, researchers will continue developing effective vaccines. It’s amazing how many of mankind’s ills, once feared, have been controlled or reduced to a minor nuisance by vaccines.
Which makes the anti-vaxxer movement all the more perplexing. The widespread fear of vaccines seems to have grown out of a 1997 study by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon, which was published in The Lancet medical journal. The study suggested the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine was increasing autism in British children.
The study has been thoroughly debunked; The Lancet retracted it and Wakefield lost his medical licence.
Still, the scope of the anti-vaxxers has grown to include all vaccines, attributing all manner of ills to them. Recent outbreaks of measles are one of the best examples of their work, helping bring back a painful, debilitating and potentially fatal disease.