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New pathogens are emerging due to population growth

Filed on January 31, 2020 | Last updated on January 31, 2020 at 10.55 pm

The appearance of the Sars-related coronavirus in China is a graphic reminder of how vulnerable mankind is to infectious diseases. Through the centuries, man's greatest threat often has not been natural disasters or warfare, but the microscopic creatures with whom we share the earth. When epidemics break out, man has been able to do little than let the epidemics run their deadly course. Has the threat disappeared or is it lurking in the background, waiting to strike again? The coronavirus is a game changer that has caught the entire world flat-footed. Medical scientists desperately need to find out whether most cases have been caused by repeated spillovers of the deadly virus from animals to humans, or whether most cases are now being triggered by secondary human-to-human transmissions. Five years ago scientists warned us about many potential Armageddon viruses, fearing a disease that leaps from animals to humans that could devastate mankind. The coronavirus resembles a Sars-like virus previously only been seen in bats. The Spanish flu pandemic originated from a wild aquatic bird.

In a hyper connected world corona has already begun crossing the globe by air, rail, road and sea. It is now at least 8-weeks-old, and has already started to cut its lethal swathe through the world's population.

Our sense of history is skewed and our understanding of the relative nature of threats is lacking. Because of this we are ill-prepared to face the coming biological storm.

Throughout history infectious disease have been the great killer of humanity. Billions have perished, nations and entire cultures have been destroyed, untold lives met with tragedy. Disease was the foundational terror of humanity. Infectious diseases are on the rise throughout the world. Pathogens are increasingly immune to current drugs. New pathogens are emerging due to human population growth and environmental degradation.

Nature continually throws challenges at human civilisation in the form of infectious diseases, the devastating diseases that periodically emerge remind us how thin is the veneer that separates our high-tech society from personal and community disaster.

- Farook Araie, Johannesburg

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