There's a disturbing reality that's clear to experts in infectious disease — but the rest of us ignore it on a regular basis.
The next pandemic is coming.
New diseases are always on the rise. Viruses and bacteria can mutate and become more infectious or deadly (or both), and there's a constant risk that new illnesses could find ways to jump from their hosts to humans. As Bill Gates wrote in a recent op-ed for Business Insider, a terrorist attack could involve the creation of a particularly contagious and deadly flu strain.
"Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year," Gates wrote. "And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years."
Five disease experts recently convened at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to discuss the threat of pandemics.
"A pandemic is something that stretches like a colossus around the world; an epidemic that affects many parts of the world," Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained at the event.
In many ways, the experts' thoughts about pandemics were reassuring — over time, they said, we've improved how we respond to disease outbreaks by acting quickly to isolate and care for sick patients. But regions of the world that struggle with poverty or war still struggle to contain disease outbreaks.
"The pandemic of greatest concern is the pandemic of poverty," said Don Weiss, a medical epidemiologist with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, during the discussion.
Each expert also explained their biggest worry about the next pandemic. Here are their concerns (with responses lightly edited for clarity):