Epidemics are much more frequent than we imagine. This is the conclusion of a statistical study carried out by Duke University, in the United States, and by the University of Padova, in Italy. The researchers calculated the likelihood of a Covid-19-like impact pandemic in the future. Looking at disease outbreaks that have occurred since the 17th century, they concluded that the odds are around 2% a year.
According to the study, a person born in 2000 would already have a 38% chance of experiencing a pandemic like the current one – which, in fact, happened. The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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The scientists used a statistical model based on historical records of all epidemics over the past 400 years, which include outbreaks of bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhus and flu, among other diseases. There are 476 documented epidemics (more than one per year), but there is no record of the death toll of 114 of them. The researchers did not include epidemics that are still occurring, such as Covid-19, HIV and malaria.
The probability depends on the intensity of the epidemic. The bigger the outbreak, the rarer it happens. A pandemic like the Spanish flu, which killed more than 50 million people in two years, has an annual probability of between 0.3% and 1.9%. Given these numbers, a pandemic with a similar impact is likely to occur sometime in the next 400 years.
For a pandemic at the level of Covid-19, which already totals 4.4 million registered deaths, the chances are around 2% per year. Scientists point out that another similar pandemic is likely to occur in the next 59 years – a time period that is “much shorter than we would intuitively expect,” they write.
“The most important conclusion is that large pandemics like Covid-19 and the Spanish flu are relatively likely,” says researcher William Pan, a professor at Duke and one of the study’s co-authors. And worse: this probability has increased over time.
Over the past 50 years, researchers have seen an increase in outbreaks caused by new pathogens. In addition to Sars-CoV-2, we can mention the variations of influenza that cause swine flu and avian flu, the Ebola virus and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The latter alone has killed 36 million people since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in 1981.
The reason for this may just be the increase in records – after all, we have more information about the year 1970 than about 1670. But researchers point to other probable causes: population increase, changes in the food system, environmental degradation and greater contact between humans and animals that can carry disease.
“This shows the importance of having a rapid response to disease outbreaks and of building local and global surveillance,” says Pan. “In addition to establishing research to understand why outbreaks are becoming more common.”
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