The biggest pandemic risk? Viral misinformation
A hundred years ago this month, the death rate from the 1918 influenza was at its peak. An estimated 500 million people were infected over the course of the pandemic; between 50 million and 100 million died, around 3% of the global population at the time.
A century on, advances in vaccines have made massive outbreaks of flu — and measles, rubella, diphtheria and polio — rare. But people still discount their risks of disease. Few realize that flu and its complications caused an estimated 80,000 deaths in the United States alone this past winter, mainly in the elderly and infirm. Of the 183 children whose deaths were confirmed as flu-related, 80% had not been vaccinated that season, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I predict that the next major outbreak — whether of a highly fatal strain of influenza or something else — will not be due to a lack of preventive technologies. Instead, emotional contagion, digitally enabled, could erode trust in vaccines so much as to render them moot. The deluge of conflicting information, misinformation and manipulated information on social media should be recognized as a global public-health threat.