"The worst thing we can do is not prepare and think it will not happen," Osterholm said, but added, "The truth of the matter is, there's a lot we can do about it."
Osterholm -- who is a consultant for the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Human Services and has been on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and CNN's "Nightline" to talk about flu pandemics -- addressed an audience at a town hall meeting in Illinois and said that history shows that a new pandemic strikes the world at least every 50 years. The last such pandemic was the Hong Kong flu -- H3N2 -- which took approximately 700,000 lives worldwide, about 40,000 of which were in the United States alone.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has already killed 141 people worldwide without mutating to a human-to-human strain, is likely to be the next devastating pandemic to sweep the globe, experts say. When it does, Osterholm said it is likely to kill at least 2.7 million people -- maybe as many as 360 million -- and people will probably have to take care of themselves as the devastation completely overpowers state and federal emergency management plans.
"Nobody in Washington or even Springfield is going to be here to help you, so you need to start thinking about this now," Osterholm said to the audience, adding that communities should preempt the problem by starting their own leadership networks and planning for relief efforts and health care. "No investment you ever make in this is going to be wasted," he said.
Osterholm said that next to a lack of preparation and assuming the pandemic will never come, the worst thing people can do is give up hope.
"Every population that endured one of these has survived it," he said. "We just have to keep telling ourselves that."