Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Be afraid, be very afraid

Forget Islamofacists, global warming and even Janeane Garofalo. This Washington Post article has, bar none, the scariest story I've ever read -- it's even scary than the last time I wrote on this subject. It's about the avian flu, which has been popping up in Southeast Asia, and which has a 70% - 75% mortality rate:

[W]ith chickens now packed into farmyards alongside other livestock, international health experts warn that conditions are set for a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions worldwide if the virus developed into a form capable of spreading among humans. In its current form, the disease kills about three quarters of the people who catch it from birds. Since the beginning of last year, 45 people in the region have been infected. Twelve Vietnamese and one Cambodian have died this year.
Although simple steps could apparently control the risk, the farmers have been resistant to whatever force their governments have so far brought to bear on them to limit the disease's spread:
U.N. agriculture officials say farmers can take simple steps to prevent the disease from spreading. They can require that workers disinfect their shoes, change clothing and spray their vehicles before entering a poultry farm. They can ban outsiders from chicken sheds, keep other animals away and keep egg trays and cages clean. But farmers resist such measures, health and agriculture experts say. And governments in the region lack the money, manpower and, at times, political will to enforce these requirements on an industry that has become a vital component of economic growth.
The risk is very real that we'll have another 1918-style Spanish Influenza style pandemic on our hands, with a virulent disease spreading rapidly, and causing millions, tens of millions, even a hundred million deaths:
As a result, the prevalence of the infection in birds makes a new, more deadly human outbreak likely. Public health experts say it is only a matter of time before the flu strain remakes itself, unleashing a disease that is both highly lethal and as easy to catch as an ordinary flu bug. If this occurs, World Health Organization officials predict that in the most optimistic scenario between 2 million and 7 million people would die worldwide and that the toll could potentially reach 100 million. Health experts say the virus has already exhibited traits similar to those that caused the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed some 40 million people.
Apparently the whole situation is ripe for something awful to happen:
It will take more for avian flu to spread rapidly among people. The current H5N1 strain would have to acquire genetic material from a human flu bug in a process called re-assortment. That worst fears of public health experts could come true if a person catches both flu strains at the same time. Scientists, however, have demonstrated that this mixing of strains could also occur in other mammals, notably pigs. Ominously, the Asian swine population has also increased significantly. It could be the gathering of a perfect storm: dense concentrations of chickens, pigs, aquatic birds and people. "Its clear that Southeast Asia poses the greatest risk today of a new virus unfolding and coming forward as a pandemic strain," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "Darwin could not have created a more efficient re-assortment laboratory if he tried."
As those of you who follow this blog may recall, I blogged about a great book telling the story of the 1918 Spanish Influenza, and I recommend it again in light of this story. This is a serious issue that simply cannot be overlooked. In this day and age of instant round-the-world travel, any disease that successfully leaps from animals to humans could spell disaster. UPDATE: Here's the NY Times' scary story about the increase in avian flu cases.