8 New Diseases That Are Coming to Wipe Us Out

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Roughly 7.3 billion people inhabit the Earth, and that figure is expected to balloon to nearly 10 billion by 2050, according to United Nations estimates. All those people need places to live and food to eat. And that means recent global rises in urbanization, population migration, and the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural land are all likely to continue — and probably accelerate. From the perspective of virologists and other people who study human disease, those are scary trends.

“The potential for new pathogens to emerge is great,” says Amanda McClelland, a senior vice president of the “prevent epidemics” team at the non-profit Resolve to Save Lives. McClelland says urbanization and climate change are almost-certain drivers of novel diseases or the reemergence of infections that were once well-contained. And there’s only so much she and other public health officials can do to foresee and contain outbreaks. “There’s a lot of work going on in terms of predicting where these could come from, but one thing we know is that viruses continue to surprise us,” she says. “Our models tell us where to look, but I’m sure there’ll be something we can’t prepare for.” Other experts share her concerns

                                                              Add in global changes to the ways people live and commingle, and many new health concerns are on the horizon.

“Habitat destruction and the loss of biodiversity can favor the types of species often responsible for infectious disease outbreaks,” says Richard Ostfeld, PhD, a distinguished senior scientist at the Carey Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Ostfeld explains that converting wild lands into food-producing ones and “chopping forests into little bits” scare away large predators and allow small animals — mice, rats, and other foragers — to thrive. “These are the species that tend to harbor dangerous pathogens,” he says.

Add in global changes to the ways people live and commingle, and many new health concerns are on the horizon. Here are eight that could emerge in the very near future.

Antibiotic Resistant E-Coli

For decades, experts have been warning about the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “The problem is the massive overuse and abuse of antibiotics in animal production and human medicine,” says Lance Price, PhD, a professor and founding director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “We know the more we use antibiotics, the more resistant bacteria will emerge.”

Price says lawmakers and regulators have been slow to implement safeguards — either for economic reasons or because it was presumed some new antibiotic drug would be developed. He says this is folly. “There are probably not an infinite number of compounds that can specifically kill bacteria and not kill us, but even if there were, drug companies are getting out of the business of developing antibiotics because there’s much more money to be made making drugs people take every day for a lifetime, not on drugs you take every few years for three to 10 days,” he says.

It’s not a question of whether new antibiotic-resistant bacteria will emerge. They’re already here. “Twenty-three thousand people died last year of untreatable infections,” Price says. “When we get new bacteria that are resistant to all our antibiotics, that number’s going to shoot way up.” He mentions E. coli and Staphylococcus as two types of infectious bacteria that could make the jump. “I don’t think we’re going to see bacteria that wipe out civilization,” he adds. “But before antibiotics, a lot of people used to die young from minor infections.”

Asian Longhorn Tick Disease

As climate change and land development continue to increase the geographic range and population density of ticks, Ostfeld says it’s likely that new tick-borne diseases will emerge — to say nothing of the explosion in Lyme disease cases in recent years. He points out that.....

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 Credit: Kory Tung

Credit: Kory Tung