Will Our Future Be Little More Than An Endless Succession of Pandemics?

You get to go home, but it’s Ground Hog day for medical workers!

Well, yeah. It’s looking that way. Since the beginning of the 21st century we’ve lived through MANY pandemics. We just haven’t noticed all of them. It’s like asking a fish, “Do you know you’re wet?” Do fish even know what it’s like to not be wet? Pandemics have become a part of our way of life.

In the past, most of what you saw, what you ate, and the people you knew were… local. It was too expensive and time-consuming to regularly travel the world. Immigrants may reminisce about the food they had in the old country, but you learned to like American foods. Apples, strawberries, and melons may not be the same as the ones from your childhood, but it’s too expensive to ship fresh fruit halfway around the world. Besides, it would rot before it got here.

In the 21st century, however, we are global. Travel and transportation is cheap, reliable, and fast. Instead of taking months, strawberries could arrive from Europe in a week or two. If you must have some super-premium fruit, you could get it the next day via air-express.

Mountains, jungles, oceans, different climates… are all barriers. Barriers used to define our world, and prevented people, animals, and plants from easily spreading. In the 21st Century, these barriers are melting away. Not just strawberries, but bacteria, viruses, molds, insects, and other dangerous “hitchhikers” can arrive in any one of the 200 million cargo containers that reach U.S. every year. A scrap of leaf, a half-eaten sandwich, or an infected passenger can easily carry a new and deadly pathogen to America.

If pandemics are so common, why aren’t they headline news every day? Because not every pandemic kills humans, and some pandemics only take a toll years after the victims are infected. Pandemics also devastate plants and animals. In the 1950s, the “Panama virus” killed off the world’s commercial bananas. It took decades, and cost billions of dollars, to find a virus-resistant replacement. But that virus has continued to mutate. New versions are appearing and farmers expect that the banana industry could be wiped out in as little as 5 or 10 years.

A few decades earlier, America had 3 to 4 billion Chestnut trees. Chestnut was the primary wood for making furniture in the early 20th century. Except for a few thousand trees, the American Chestnut has gone extinct, killed by a fungus from imported Chinese Chestnuts. This “hitchhiker” innocently brought to the U.S., shows how easily Pandemics can start.

An industry-destroying bacteria from China arrived in Florida in the 1990s. Florida was renowned for its citrus fruits, supplying 80% of America’s orange juice. Today the “greening virus” infects every citrus grove in Florida, and was recently spotted in California. The virus doesn’t kill citrus trees, but it makes their fruits inedible. The only option for a citrus farmer is to burn infected trees. Florida’s share of the orange juice market is now barely 40%. If the greening virus continues to spread, the U.S. citrus industry may only last another 10 years.

China has no monopoly on pathogens. It’s merely that as physical barriers between nations go away, China is still on the other side of the world. Many diseases in China and Asia are nearly unknown in the Western hemisphere. Without previous exposure, our plants and animals have little or no immunity to these foreign invaders. But that is rapidly changing, which is why Pandemics are on the rise.

While plant diseases can destroy an economy, they are unlikely to infect a human being. Cows, pigs, and poultry, however, are more closely related to us and fatal animal diseases can “cross-over” to infect humans. A few years ago this happened with Mad Cow disease. Mad Cow may have originated in goats, spread to cows, and then infected humans through diseased meat. When infected cows acted strangely, their diseased meat wasn’t sold as human food. Instead, it was sold as cat food. Soon, cats were also acting strangely, alerting health care officials that something strange was going on.

Millions of heads of cattle were killed to stop the spread, but the real culprit was a new “efficiency” in farming. When a cow died before it was butchered, it was ground up and fed to the rest of the herd. But because we were alerted by those cats, only a few hundred Americans and Europeans died from Mad Cow disease. If not for those cats, millions would have slowly gone insane as the disease ate through their brains.

American farming practices may be dangerous, but they are considered to the be most efficient (and profitable) in the world, making American-style farming the model that other nations want. What exactly is our system? Think of a “chicken coop”. Do you have an image of a dozen chickens running around a farm, living in a small shed? Not quite. American poultry farms could have 20,000 chickens in just one coop. Chickens never leave the coop, and rarely have enough space to even turn around. Movement is minimized to reduce the calories burned. That provides maximum profits.

When so many animals are packed into so little space, animals frequently get sick and die. That’s bad for profit. The solution is to use large quantities of antibiotics and other medicines. However, the more drugs we use, the faster diseases gain immunity. Drug-resistant diseases are often more virulent. It is only recently that we learned that different types of viruses and bacteria teach each other their immunity tricks by exchanging DNA. This speeds up the cycle of drug-resistance. If that “super-bug” infects a human being, we have the start of a Pandemic. Not a good thing, if our most effective medicines lost all of their potency on a farm.

This process of population crowding, high levels of drugs, and the rapid spread of dangerous diseases is the foundation of American agriculture. The profitability of this model has made China very interested in replicating it. China has bought some of our largest pig and chicken farms to accelerate their conversion to this model. This will massively increase the potential of cross-over diseases. SARS and Bird Flu outbreaks started in poultry farms. Swine Flu came from pig farms. But our agriculture system rapidly turned an animal disease into human pandemics.

Interestingly, the same conditions that make farms superspreaders of pandemic diseases, also exist in the American healthcare system. Hospitals take individuals with infectious diseases and put them in very crowded environments where they are then given massive amounts of antibiotics and other drugs. Many of the patients have their skin broken by needles, IVs, and other devices that provide access to opportunistic diseases. Not surprisingly, hospitals around the world are rapidly breeding deadly diseases that can resist every drug we have.

Staphylococcus was a major killer in the early 20th century. Staph is making a big comeback. Simply put, Staph turns your flesh into oozing pus. You dissolve. Before antibiotics, all a doctor could do was slice away chunks of flesh and muscle, arms and legs, faster than the infection could spread. MERSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) is 21st century Staph. MERSA has been spotted in hospitals around the world, with newer more deadly versions being reported. A few antibiotics still work (sometimes), but MERSA could soon turn into a death sentence. Tuberculosis and pneumonia are following this same deadly path of evolution.

This is our world of Pandemics! Our excessive use of drugs in farms and hospitals forces killer diseases to evolve and mutate. Once that process gives birth to a true killer, our global transportation network then provides a highway for people and products to swiftly move around the world… with the next Pandemic hitchhiking along.

For over 100 years modern medicine, advances in transportation, and an incredibly productive agriculture system served us well. We cured diseases that would have killed millions of Americans, and fed a nation. But when miracle drugs got mixed in with high volume agriculture and a lax medical system, we started an age of Pandemics. Can we overcome the flaws in the systems we’ve created? Or will the spread of American-style agriculture make Pandemics even more frequent? Tell us what you think! What does the future look like to you?

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