LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: American businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates makes a speech at the Malaria Summit at 8 Northumberland Avenue on April 18, 2018 in London, England. The Malaria Summit is being held today to urge Commonwealth leaders to commit to halve cases of malaria across the Commonwealth within the next five years with a target to 650,000 lives. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

With all the talk of President Trump’s nuclear button, deadly extreme weather and even humanoid robots taking over the world, it’s easy these days to imagine any number of doomsday scenarios that could wipe out the human race.

According to Microsoft-founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates, however, the most pressing threat is something much less dramatic but also highly plausible: A global pandemic akin to the 1918 influenza breakout, which could kill more than 30 million people in just six months.

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MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 12: Tick (Ixodes ricinus) on a leaf on July 12, 2011 in Nittendorf, Germany. (Photo by Agency-Animal-Picture/Getty Images)

For decades, April showers and May flowers have been followed by a burst of springtime tick activity, as an army of hungry parasites march through suburban backyards and rural areas in search of blood—maybe yours. As the climate warms, scientists are seeing earlier and greater tick activity in an expanded geographic range, which means humans, pets and livestock are at increasing risk of contracting a growing array of tick-borne diseases.

Lyme disease, the best-known illness caused by a tick bite, has been spreading from its 1970s range in the northeast U.S. to the rest of the country and Canada. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Lyme disease cases in the U.S. doubled. Canada is just beginning to grapple with the problem: It reported 144 cases in 2009 and 987 cases in 2016, a six-fold increase. Yet, unreliable testing and treatments make it difficult to form an effective response. Many people who contract the virus suffer for years without an effective treatment.

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Andie Vaught, 25, grasps a stress toy in the shape of a truck as she prepares to have her blood drawn by phlebotomist Catina Boyd as part of a clinical trial for a Zika vaccine at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, November 21, 2016. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Each year, the epidemiology community keeps a close eye on the flu, a virus that is famous for mutating and changing in its severity and ability to spread. This year is an especially auspicious year for contemplating influenza: 100 years ago, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 killed millions of people around the world. Studying these viruses can alert the medical and scientific communities in time to stop such an outbreak from devastating humanity again.

However, studying viruses can be a tricky business. In 2014, University of Wisconsin flu experts created a “mutant” version of the 1918 flu virus, and discovered that strains of the original 1918 version still exist in the environment. Since even the strictest lab protocols can’t promise that such a virus won’t escape, this development sparked debate which prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to issue a moratorium on continued studies on infectious diseases. Scientists argued that if we don’t study viruses, we won’t understand how to combat them when they inevitably occur in human and agricultural populations.

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A worker checks out a chick at a poultry farm in Hefei, eastern China's Anhui province on November 20, 2015. Scientists warned of the "epidemic potential" of deadly and fast-spreading bacteria resistant to last-line antibiotics. The superbugs were detected during routine health testing of pigs and chickens in southern China. The animals were found to be carrying bacteria resistant to colistin, an antibiotic widely used in livestock farming. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Our best medicines are losing their power. Since the 1940s, antibiotics have stopped infections from turning deadly, saving millions of lives around the world. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, surgery was more dangerous, now-curable diseases like STDs and tuberculosis killed millions, and a paper cut could be fatal. However, overuse and misuse of these drugs have led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of “superbugs.” Older types of antibiotics have been rendered useless by these powerful bacteria, compelling researchers to develop new generations of stronger varieties. Now those newer drugs are losing their effectiveness as well, and the World Health Organization has raised the alarm: We are running out of cures.

"Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO. "There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB, otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery."

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This post has been amended to reflect changes in the story.

[DIGEST: Washington PostWSJ, GM WatchBBC, NPR, ABC, New Scientist, CDC, Human Rights Watch]

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