The risk of a frightening global pandemic threatens millions -- and we're far from prepared to deal with it

If a lethal, respiratory-borne infection spreads around the world, the death toll could be in the range of 50 to 80 million people.


That's the conclusion of an annual report authored by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board on behalf of the World Bank and World Health Organization, according to Vox's Sigal Samuel.

The problem is that for all our modern medical knowledge, human technology has made it easier than ever for pandemics to spread before we even know we're in trouble.

"Scientific advances have made it possible for disease-causing microorganisms to be engineered or recreated in labs, or to escape labs when explosions and other accidents occur," wrote Samuel. "Our robust transportation infrastructure makes it easy for travelers to pick up a disease in one country, fly across an ocean, and spread the disease to another country within hours. Increased urbanization and population growth also exacerbate the spread of disease."

"And then there’s climate change, which causes natural disasters that strain national health systems, weakening their ability to efficiently respond to outbreaks," continued Samuel. "Global warming is also expanding mosquito habitats, which means we’ll likely be seeing more mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever — including in the US and Europe."

The problem, Samuel continued, is that while experts are aware of this risk, "we’ve got a habit of paying attention to pandemics only when they’re actually upon us."

"If, tomorrow, we had a global influenza pandemic akin to the scale and virulence of the one that struck a century ago — in 1918, the Spanish flu killed around 50 million people — it would cost our modern economy an estimated $3 trillion," wrote Samuel. "And, the report notes, 'If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world less than 36 hours, 50-80 million people could perish.'"

The solutions, according to the report, are for nations to increase funding and donations to low-income countries, share genome sequences, build trust with local populations, and involve women — who remain the primary caregivers in much of the world — in policymaking.