What I mean by the Next Big One is a pandemic of some newly emerging or re-emerging infectious disease, a global health catastrophe in which millions die. The influenza epidemic of 1918-19 was a big one, killing about 50 million people worldwide. The Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 was biggish, causing at least a million deaths. AIDS has killed some 30 million and counting. Scientists who study this subject — virologists, molecular geneticists, epidemiologists, disease ecologists — stress its complexity but tend to agree on a few points.
Yes, there probably will be a Next Big One, they say. It will most likely be caused by a virus, not by a bacterium or some other kind of bug. More specifically, we should expect an RNA virus (specifically, one that bears its genome as a single molecular strand), as distinct from a DNA virus (carrying its info on the reliable double helix, less prone to mutation, therefore less variable and adaptable). Finally, this RNA virus will almost certainly be zoonotic — a pathogen that emerges from some nonhuman animal to infect, and spread among, human beings.— “Anticipating the next pandemic" by David Quammen, in the New York Times, 24 September 2012.
Diseases that just won’t quit
File this one under “possible real apocalyptic scenarios,” please: a piece from Discovery magazine about a number of incredibly nasty diseases, including super-gonorrhea, that are rebounding or otherwise making comebacks from near eradication thanks to things like drug-resistant strains and climate change.