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Population growth and the risk of pandemics

nick cowen, 7 November 2011

By Emily Clarke

Last night thousands of viewers watched as “Spanish Flu” swept through Downton Abbey, taking the life of one of its residents. With no antibiotics, the effects of the 1918-1920 flu epidemic were devastating as approximately 25-30% of the world population was infected and 40 million people, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, were killed.  Although channelled through the medium of ITV drama, it is nevertheless important to take note of this deadly episode as we reach an important milestone in the history of humankind.


On the 31st October 2011, Danica Camacho’s birth in the Philippines was chosen by UN demographers to officially mark the point at which the world population reached 7 billion.  In some quarters the figure of 7 billion has prompted renewed interest in the Malthusian argument for positive population control. See, for example, an article published in The Scotsman in which Professor Wilmut controversially argues that to prevent continuing exponential population growth, we need to start impressing upon younger generations their social responsibility to limit the number of children they have.  Arguments like this for positive population control might be flawed because they tend to only have a narrow application in comparably wealthier and developed nations but, nevertheless, Malthus and others like him are right to seek ways to avoid the alternative: namely negative population control (large-scale death through overpopulation either due to lack of resources or contagious disease).

With increasingly densely populated areas the potential for wiping out large sections of society through the rapid spread of disease are extremely worrying. The effects that poor sanitation, cramped conditions and exponentially rising birth rates can have on the spread of disease are well known: the initiative to eradicate polio for example is faltering in Pakistan and parts of Africa where the disease seems to be spreading faster than children can be vaccinated.  However, the scares over bird flu and swine flu, coupled with a worrying increase in resistance to antibiotics  and very few new antibiotic families to combat this, show that it is not just the “developing” world that may increasingly struggle with disease control. It is clear therefore  that national governments and international organisations need to work together in order to make sure that a growing population does not necessarily mean higher incidents of infectious diseases that end in large loss of life.

The best solutions for tackling this problem remain to be seen but could for example involve internationally agreed emergency measures which shut down global travel quickly and effectively.  Alternatively initiatives to spread a country’s population more evenly through its territory might be required by ensuring that investment goes into several centres of development rather than just one or two. Either way it is crucial that NGOs, governments, medical communities and international organisations offer suggestions for tackling a security issue that won’t always obey the boundaries of nation states, and could be the source of several national and international emergencies if not carefully addressed.


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