Is this scaremongering? A lot of people seem to think so. They should read this short book. Its style may be somewhat breathless, but its argument is irrefutable. During the late 20th and early 21st century, we have, through Third World urbanisation and the intensive farming of livestock, created the ideal conditions in which a new, lethal virus could evolve that would sweep the planet and cause millions of deaths.
The chances of this happening are a simple lottery. It depends on flu viruses that are circulating in chickens and humans (and perhaps other species, such as pigs) mixing and mutating to create a wholly new virus to which no one would have immunity. As is well known, this happened three times in the last century, causing the pandemics of 1918, 1957 and 1968. Millions died.
What is different now is that avian flu is endemic in the chicken and duck populations of the Far East. Where once we had occasional outbreaks, we now have a disease that cannot be eliminated. At the same time, the number of humans coming into close contact with chickens and ducks is larger than ever, thanks to urban population growth. So, the chances of the lethal mutation necessary to cause the next pandemic have dramatically increased.
In the meantime, is there anything that we can do? No, other than stocking up with Tamiflu (the drug won't stop the flu but may lessen its impact and could save lives). But governments could do something, by changing their priorities. As Mike Davis points out, the American government is spending $14.5bn (£8bn) on the hypothetical threat of a bio-terrorist attack with smallpox or anthrax, but only a fraction of that on preparing for the far more likely threat of nature launching an avian-flu pandemic on us.
Of course, the pandemic might never happen - just as New Orleans might have escaped Hurricane Katrina.