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A new plague: The epidemic is coming

Think the days of plague are behind us? Then think again. The next killer disease is just waiting to strike, says biologist Dr Robert Baker

Published: 14 November 2007

We're in for another epidemic. You probably don't want to hear that; we've had enough with bluetongue, foot-and-mouth and bird flu in animals. We're only just beginning to calm down as the bird flu threat to humans apparently recedes, but mad cow disease seems only yesterday and our hospitals are cesspits of MRSA and C.difficile. Haven't we had enough? And how can I be so sure that we're due for more?

The first answer is: history. Infectious diseases have been with us since the dawn of time. In the last century they accounted for more deaths than all the wars combined; indeed during most conflicts until the American Civil War of 1861-5 deaths from infection off the battlefield exceeded those from wounds. But surely the invention of penicillin, proper sewerage and vaccination should have got rid of them for good?

I'm afraid not. My research is not, generally, concerned with the obvious culprit – resistance. The number of people dying of resistant bacteria, although increasing, is small. Nor am I banging a drum about the lack of clean drinking water that is killing millions. I am concerned with the epidemics that are likely to trouble us in the West: how they might get to us; what they might do; and how (if at all) we can protect ourselves.

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