by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The word "pandemic" should send shivers down our spines. Worldwide disease epidemics are on the rise, and several authorities are predicting outbreaks of some diseases medical science thought they had all but eradicated.
For us, however, it is not surprising. Jesus Christ plainly prophesied that pestilence of major proportions would arise in the last days (Matthew 24:7). The last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, pestilence is a pale, or greenish-yellow, horse ridden by a being called Death. Hades, or the grave, follows after. They are given the power to kill one quarter of the earth's population by means of war, famine, plague and beasts (Revelation 6:7-8).
It presents a striking scenario: War often causes famine. Malnutrition and starvation breed disease, which under the right conditions erupts into epidemics. The bites of animals and insects transmit certain diseases, and sickness and weakness make people easier targets for attack by hungry wild beasts. Though it may be difficult to imagine events like these in our day the Bible shows the progression and the certainty of the prophecy.
Diseases Old and New
Unfortunately, the signs of old and new diseases on the verge of pandemic are already showing. One professor of microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, Australia, told a conference of his peers in Sydney: "We don't know what it [the plague] will be, or where it will be, but there will be one, we only have to look at history." He cites deteriorating refugee conditions worldwide, fast-increasing populations, high-risk sexual habits and the scarcity of pure drinking water as factors that presage global epidemics (Intelligence Digest, September 3, 1993, p. 3).
Two American researchers, writing in the British medical journal Lancet, warn that the recent cholera epidemic has pandemic potential. A new strain of cholera, called "Bengal cholera," has already infected several hundred thousand people from India to Thailand this year, of which about five thousand have died. Cholera is contracted through sewage-tainted drinking water or food, or following contact with someone who is already contaminated by those means.
Classic cholera is currently infecting thousands in much of the former Soviet Union, where internal conflicts and a general breakdown in sewage and disposal services are common. The El Tor variety of cholera surfaced in Peru in 1990 and spread quickly as far as Colombia and Bolivia, killing sixty-three hundred people.
New forms of diphtheria have surfaced in Russia, where over four thousand cases had been reported within the first eight months of 1993. Several cases of bubonic plague, the Black Death that killed about forty million in medieval Europe, have been reported in Kazakhstan. Ten non-fatal cases of bubonic plague struck Americans in 1992. Tuberculosis, thought eradicated by many, is on a comeback in Russia, Europe and the U.S.
And new diseases, like hantavirus, which first affected Navajo Indians in New Mexico, have doctors and researchers baffled. It has been found in rodents over the U.S., China, Korea and northern Europe.
On top of all this, the World Health Organization (WHO) believes that several new rodent-borne diseases, like bubonic plague and hantavirus, could be unleashed globally in the near future. To this point, they have refrained from proclaiming war on rats because killing them releases the fleas that actually carry the diseases. They have no idea how to respond to the threat.
Of course, there is AIDS as well. Having surfaced in Asia, WHO predicts that over the next decade more AIDS cases will occur in Asian countries than in Africa, which currently leads the world in infections. Nearly one-third of pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa are currently testing HIV-positive. WHO also predicts that between 10 and 15 million children will be orphaned by 2000 in this region alone as a result of AIDS-related deaths. And possibly one-third to one-half of the children will themselves have AIDS.
The U.S., said to have the best health-care system in the world, is unprepared for any major outbreak of viral infections. Robert Shope, professor of epidemiology and committee cochairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, reports that the nation is vulnerable to an outbreak comparable to the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed 20 million worldwide. "It can happen again," he warns (Insight, October 11, 1993, p.16).
Frederick A. Murphy, former director of the Centers of Disease Control's National Center for Infectious Diseases, believes that an influenza-like disease that "transmits fast and broadly" is the most likely candidate for the next pandemic. And the damage will be done before America's "porous line of defense against viral invaders" can respond (Ibid., p. 19).
Again, we should not be surprised. God warned Israel in their wilderness wanderings about what would happen if they did not obey His commandments. "I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever. . . . [W]hen you are gathered together within your cities I will send pestilence among you" (Leviticus 26:16, 25; cf. Deuteronomy 28).
But He also promises protection and healing from such diseases. "If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God . . . , I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you" (Exodus 15:26; cf. 23:25; Deuteronomy 7:15; Psalm 103:3).
As we hear the approaching hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen growing ever louder, we have only one refuge from their relentless onslaught.
Surely He shall deliver you . . . from the perilous pestilence. . . . His truth shall be your shield and buckler. You shall not be afraid . . . of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you. . . . Because you have made the LORD . . . your habitation, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling. (Psalm 91:3-10)
As the Horsemen converge on this nation from every side, we must keep our focus on the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), forbidding any distraction to hinder us. In doing so, we will be prepared for both the troubles and the joys that lie just ahead.