End of the World Doomsday Countdown: Day 20

Sunday, December 02, 2012

You may have heard: there are those who believe, based on interpretations of the Mayan calendar, that the world will end on December 21, 2012—also known as The Winter Solstice.  Whether you believe in the Mayan calendar or not, chances are you have wondered, at one time or another, just how things will end—when they do. Us, too. So we went in search of answers.

To get to the bottom of things, we teamed up with our friends from Discovery Communication's HowStuffWorks series and put together a list of "The Top Ten Ways For The World To End" culled from HOWSTUFFWORKS: THE END OF THE WORLD.  We've divided the list into The Top Five Natural Disasters and The Top Five Man-Made Catastrophies. The first up for review: A natural disaster: the great plague turned pandemic. 

If you’ve ever watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, chances are you have a clear mental image of what a plague-stricken village looks like. It’s dirty—even squalid—and its inhabitants are similarly filthy. There’s also one resident with a very particular occupation. He wheels a cart through town, calling, “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!"

Body collectors and grimy villages may seem like things of the past, especially in affluent parts of the world. But in some countries, people can still remember the most recent plague epidemics. And in several parts of the world, plague is endemic—it exists all the time.

Today, some of the deadly illnesses that cause the most alarm are newly discovered diseases. Scientists isolated the H5N1 influenza virus (aka avian flu) in 1996.  Person-to-person spread is rare, but the virus has a mortality rate of about sixty percent in humans. A virus also causes Ebola, identified in 1976. Ebola has a mortality rate of up to eighty percent. The first known case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was reported in the 1950s. Scientists finally isolated the virus responsible in the 1980s.

Through history, plague has proven to be virulent and generally gets the credit for three major pandemics: •The plague of Justinian lasted from 542 to 546 CE. It claimed about 100 million victims in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
•The Black Death moved across Europe in the 1300s. About a third of Europe’s population died. There were about 50 million total deaths in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
•The third plague pandemic started in Canton and Hong Kong during the late 1800s. Ships carried the illness around the world, hitting major port cities including Bombay, Cape Town, Bangkok, Guayaquil, San Francisco, and Pensacola, Florida. Thirteen million people died in India alone.

With these figures in mind, is it any wonder really, that we remain alarmed about disease that can spread like wildfire? Still, while it seems a new pandemic—one that could truly devastate the world’s population—is a very real threat, indeed, we rather doubt there's time enough for one to fully manifest by Winter Solstice. Odds 10:1.

For more on pandemics and other looming natural disasters, be sure to download the digital edition of HOWSTUFFWORKS: THE END OF THE WORLD, available on December 11.

And tune in tomorrow, when we take a chilling look at The Ice Age.

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