Scientists warn of a future epidemic

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 4:35pm


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Despite huge advances in health care over the past few decades, infectious diseases still pose a threat

A series of medical breakthroughs and advances in health care mean we live longer than our ancestors. With the introduction of vaccines, infectious diseases that were incurable fewer than fifty years ago no longer pose a serious threat.

However, even an advanced medical system with comprehensive preventive measures could still be vulnerable in the face of disease outbreaks which have become more frequent in recent years.

Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlighted the increasing vulnerability of humans to health crises in its annual World Health Report. Titled A Safer Future, the report portrayed a somewhat gloomy picture where our well-being is increasingly at risk due to insufficient health awareness and opaque reporting systems in case of virus outbreaks.

Over the last five years, the WHO confirmed more than 1,100 outbreaks worldwide of diseases such as cholera, polio and bird flu.

There are 39 viruses that were unknown a generation ago, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Aids.

People travel much more frequently than in the past, especially by air, which means a virus can spread around the world at a much faster rate than previously. Last year, almost 2.1 billion people travelled by plane - with passengers cooped up inside a small area for a long time breathing recycled air, a plane can be a fertile ground for viruses.

In May, an American globe-trotting lawyer caused an international health scare after he made two transatlantic trips despite warnings from doctors that he had a deadly form of tuberculosis.

For fear that passengers on the flights would be infected, the US's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention launched an international search for travellers who were potentially exposed to

the highly contagious disease. Although it turned out that the man suffered from a less dangerous form of tuberculosis, this episode shows how vulnerable we are to virus outbreaks.

Other recent virus outbreaks have set alarm bells ringing and bird flu still looms as a threat as health officials all over the world agree that an influenza epidemic is overdue.

The last global influenza pandemic broke out in 1918 in Spain. Cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded history, the 'Spanish Flu' killed 20-40 million people, a figure higher than the number of casualties in world war one.

A repeat of history is feared if the H5N1 strain jumps the species barrier to infect humans.

Although it rarely passes to humans, it has infected 322 people and killed a further 195 since 2003. Recent confirmed cases in Indonesia have led health experts to conclude that the virus has already acquired the ability to infect humans.

To pre-empt the crisis, scientists have been rushing against time to develop vaccines and governments are strengthening their health care systems to combat potential disease outbreaks.

Developing countries like mainland China, Vietnam and Indonesia are repeatedly reminded to alert the WHO immediately in the event of an outbreak of disease and share virus samples with other nations to help develop vaccines.

However, red tape in these countries means that alerts usually come from the media, rather than the government. All of these factors mean the theoretical scenario of a mass outbreak of disease may become a frightening reality one day.

It affects us too ...

Hong Kong has had its share of alarming disease outbreaks.

In 1997, H5N1 jumped from chickens to humans in Hong Kong. Eighteen people were hospitalised, six of whom died. Three million chickens were slaughtered to stem the outbreak.

Another deadly virus which remains etched in the public memory is the Sars epidemic. A total of 296 people died of the disease and 1,755 became ill. At the height of the outbreak in early April 2003, there were 60 to 80 new cases of the disease each day.

Doomsday scenarios where people shunned public places and wore surgical masks on the street dominated headlines around the world.

Numbering the dangers

Over the last five years, the WHO confirmed more than 1,100

outbreaks of disease worldwide

There are 39 diseases that were unknown a generation ago

H5N1 has infected 322 people since 2003, of whom 195 have died

Reading comprehension

1 What reasons does the passage give for humans' increasing vulnerability to virus outbreaks?

i. More people travel around the world by air.

ii. Developing countries are slow to report disease outbreaks.

iii. Governments and people do not have enough health awareness.

a) i and ii

b) i and iii

c) all of the above

2 What diseases are mentioned in the passage?

i. Sars

ii. H5N1

iii. Malaria

iv. Ebola

a) i, ii and iii

b) i, iii and iv

c) all of the above

3 According to the WHO, what should developing countries do to prevent disease outbreaks?

a) Provide more training to doctors and do more research on disease prevention

b) Report outbreaks instantly and share virus samples with other countries

c) Buy more vaccines from pharmaceutical companies as a precautionary measure

4 How many people have been infected by the H5N1 virus since 2003?

a) 517

b) 322

c) 195

Language focus

The present perfect continuous tense:

We use the present perfect continuous tense to talk about actions that started in the past and are still continuing now. The tense is usually used together with 'for' and 'since'.

Here is an example from the passage:

'To pre-empt the crisis, scientists have been rushing against time to develop vaccines and governments have been strengthening their health care systems to combat disease outbreaks.'

Fill in the blanks with the most appropriate tenses (either simple present or present perfect continuous).

1) Mary _______________ (play) the piano every day.

2) Peter ______________ (play) the guitar for seven years.

3) I ____________ (wait) for an hour! Why are you so late?

4) He _________ (learn) French for three years but he is still not fluent.

5) The school __________ (place) great emphasis on all-round development.

6) I __________ (not sleep) well since I returned from my holiday.

Think about ...

1 Do you think a virus pandemic will break out in the near future? Why?

2 What should governments and citizens do to pre-empt possible health crises?

3 Have you ever had an infectious disease? Discuss with your classmates.

4 What did you do to protect yourself during the Sars epidemic in 2003?


Reading comprehension: 1. c, 2. a, 3. b, 4. a; Language focus: 1. plays 2. has been playing 3. have been waiting 4. has been learning 5. places 6. have not been sleeping