Avian or Bird Flu is particularly nasty: thirty people have died, about half of those who have contracted it. But until now, the assumption was that all the case were caught by people from birds. But the clusters of cases are now showing worrying signs of mutation to a form that could be readily transmitted from person to person. The scenario is that normal human flu combines with bird flu to create a highly virulent, highly deadly flu virus. If this happens, it will make SARS look like a minor problem.
Flu pandemics have happened before, and experts say they will certainly happen again. Some even say we are 'overdue' - the last one happened over 30 years ago. Deaths in the past have numbered in the millions worldwide. The flu epidemic that occurred at the end of WWI killed more people than the war itself. In the modern era, air travel will spread the disease faster, but improving general health may help us fight it.
Modern medicine should help, but when the outbreak comes there will be no vaccine available. The vaccine will need to be made specific to the virus, and until it appears it cannot be manufactured. It will take scientists some months to isolate the virus, and find the vaccine. And in the meantime, anti-virals (which help you fight off the virus) will be in short supply. Stockpiles are worryingly low, and there will be a scramble for what stocks there are.
The scenario is quite gloomy: travel restrictions, school closures, hospitals full, and deaths on an huge scale. Yet where are the resources? The budget for 'the war on terrorism' is vast, yet terrorism does not threaten us on this scale at all.