March 31, 2006 at 6:44 pm #12184
THE REAL BIRD FLU DANGER
by Mark Tier
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 25 to 50 million people – 2.5% and
5% of the world’s population. If you believe fear-mongers writing for the
world’s media, the supposedly virulent H5N1 bird flu virus will cause
another pandemic any day now. If it’s as bad as 1918, 125 to 300 million
will die. With 747s, instead of the more leisurely steamships of 1918, any
pandemic will spread a lot faster today so the death toll could possibly
reach a billion people.
A terrifying prospect, isn’t it?
But major differences – aside from 747s – between 1918 and now mean that
the real chance of another 1918-style bird flu pandemic, while not zero,
is pretty close. To start with, in 1918 scientists didn’t even know what a
virus was. They knew that the Spanish flu was caused by something smaller
than bacteria – but until the 1940s no one could see or isolate a virus,
let alone analyze one.
Today not only do we know what viruses are, we have developed some
protection against them; and scientists can decode their genetic sequence.
Secondly, the Spanish flu came out of the blue, so to speak. There was no
warning – nor did anybody expect it. By the time people realized it was a
pandemic, it had already spread worldwide.
Today, in contrast, everybody expects a pandemic to begin any day, and
health authorities everywhere are already planning what to do. (Let’s just
hope their preparations will be more effective that their planning for
catastrophes like hurricane Katrina!)
But remember SARS? It appeared from nowhere in 2002. And who expected
something like it? Not a soul. Yet, just days after it was first
identified as a new and unknown disease, sufferers and their contacts were
quarantined; travelers were screened – and so many people decided to stay
at home that airlines like Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific suffered dramatic
declines in passengers – and profits.
Within just a few weeks, SARS had been identified as a corona-virus, and
soon thereafter its source was traced to civet cats in China’s Guangdong
province. SARS, while not as contagious as influenza, was pretty nasty
just the same. Almost 10% of the people who caught it died. Ironically,
though, so effective were the measures taken to isolate sufferers that
over 20% of the people infected were doctors, nurses and other hospital
staff – who caught it from patients!
This totally new, virulent but unknown and unexpected disease – spread
around the world almost instantly by 747s – killed a total of 774 people.
Thousands more people die from diseases like malaria and dengue fever
Unlike SARS and the Spanish flu, the world now expects a disastrous,
world-wide influenza pandemic to happen any day. So everybody’s watching
for it. The moment someone catches the H5N1 virus from a bird, they’re
isolated. Birds carrying the virus are being culled in the millions –
further reducing the chances of it mutating into something that can jump
from human to human.
However, as the British Medical Journal put it in its October 29 issue:
“The lack of sustained human-to-human transmission suggested that this
H5N1 virus does not currently have the capacity to cause a human
pandemic,” adding that the warnings are entirely a theoretical
Is there any evidence for this conclusion? To judge from the press, this
H5N1 avian flu virus is something new. Maybe it isn’t. What is certainly
new is that every time someone catches it, it’s on the front pages of the
Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger – a molecular pathologist with the Armed Forces
Institute of Technology in Washington, D.C. – led the research team that
recently decoded the 1918 Spanish flu virus.
What they discovered: it was not H5N1 – or any other known avian flu
virus. What’s more, though definitely bird flu, it didn’t originate in
chickens, ducks or geese. In fact, nobody knows at the moment what bird it
came from. As part of their research, Taubenberger and his team analyzed
tissue samples from 25 preserved waterfowl, vintage around 1918, stored at
the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
They discovered that avian flu viruses those birds carried were identical
to same variants found in birds today. In nearly a century, these viruses
have hardly changed or evolved at all.
To people used to taking a flu shot every year – because last year’s flu
shot won’t protect you against this year’s flu – this may seem a
surprising discovery. But human influenzas are continually evolving – as
the virus gains resistance to each new medication. As birds don’t take
antibiotics, get flu shots or other medical cocktails, the viruses they
carry don’t need to change.
The H5N1 avian flu virus is known to have been around since the late
1950’s. For all we know, it’s been infecting people for hundreds – if not
thousands – of years. And in all that time, it has not caused a human
pandemic. But only in 1997 did scientists actually discover it had
infected humans. As a result, today every person this virus infects is
religiously reported instead of being ignored – which turns it into a
scare, but not a pandemic.
Not everyone agrees, as we’ll see in a moment. But here’s something else
that’s suggestive: until very recently, only severe cases of H5N1
infection have been studied by doctors and scientists: the people who end
up in hospital at death’s door, where nearly half of them die.
So we’re given the impression – fostered by the scare-mongering media and
scientists desperate for bigger government grants – that this is an
incredibly deadly virus; one far worse than the Spanish flu.
A study published on January 9th in the Archives of Internal Medicine
casts serious doubt on this conclusion. In a province near Hanoi, Vietnam,
where 80% of residents keep chickens and H5N1 is rampant, 45,476 were
randomly selected for a survey – 8,149 of them, or 17.9% – reported having
had flu-like symptoms with a fever and a cough. And nearly two-thirds of
them had direct contact with sick or dying birds.
While blood-testing needs to be done to confirm the hypothesis, it seems
highly probable that the H5N1 strain of avian flu is very similar to the
other viruses birds carry: capable of infecting humans but with very mild
effects – indistinguishable from the common cold – when it does. Only a
tiny percent of people infected react so badly they have to go to
hospital. Until now, they were the only cases ever reported, so creating
the unwarranted fear that H5N1 was exceptionally virulent.
Unfortunately, there is a very different bird flu danger. The H5 strain of
viruses is just one of sixteen different virus groups birds carry around –
rather like a flying “virus soup.” As birds’ immune systems are adapted to
these viruses, they rarely get sick.
This is about to change.
Countries like China and Vietnam, which are among those killing millions
of birds carrying this virus, are inoculating them as well. So the H5N1
virus – not to mention all the other viruses birds carry around with them
– will soon gain resistance to current treatments (like Tamiflu).
Indeed, the New Scientist recently postulated that the H5N1virus could
well be the result of past inoculations of domestic fowl. While the latest
evidence suggests they were wrong, there is no doubt that thanks to these
inoculations H5N1 could easily evolve into an entirely new strain, already
resistant to all known treatments.
If that happens, even if it doesn’t jump to humans it could easily
decimate the world’s bird population. That said, it is possible that the
H5N1 virus – or one of the other many such viruses birds carry with them –
could jump to humans. After all, that’s how both the “Asian flu” (1957-58)
and “Hong Kong flu” (1968-69) got started. If that happens, what’s the
The Spanish flu pandemic gives us the answer (and it’s not Tamiflu).
One of the countries least affected by the Spanish flu was a country that
has long had exceptionally strict quarantine laws: Australia, but not as
strict as American Samoa. As telegrams carried the news faster than
steamships, American Samoa knew about the Spanish flu long before it
arrived there. They simply closed their doors, and did not let any ships
dock except under strict quarantine conditions. The number of deaths from
Spanish flu in American Samoa: zero.
But the Spanish flu did hit Western Samoa, just a few miles away, where
there was no quarantine: some 20% of the population died.
That SARS didn’t turn into a pandemic is further proof of the
effectiveness of quarantine in stopping a highly contagious disease in its
tracks. So, provided any new strain of bird flu is spotted early –
virtually certain given the current vigilance of the world’s health
authorities – it will be contained long before it can turn into a
pandemic. Chances are, that’s never going to happen. But even so, you can
be sure that bird flu scares will be a staple of the world’s press for
many years to come.
Why? It’s simple. Last year, the George W. Bush announced an “emergency”
$7.1 billion program to combat the bird flu scare. Other governments
around the world are setting up similar programs, though on a smaller
scale. This means we have an entirely new scientific establishment funded
by inexhaustible government money whose sole reason for existence is to
find something that hasn’t happened yet – and may never happen.
To justify their existence and to get more of that lovely government green
stuff, you can be sure that this new “government program” will do
everything in its power to keep the bird flu scare alive. One way, is
adopting the political techniques of “spin.” For example, in an article
published in Thursday’s (23 March 2006) issue of Nature, Yoshihiro
Kawaoka, a researcher at the Universities of Tokyo and Wisconsin, wrote
that one reason why the H5N1 virus hasn’t spread from human to human is
that it infects the bottom area of the lungs.
Other flu viruses prosper in the top of the lungs, so they’re easily
spread when people cough, and even breathe out. H5N1 doesn’t have that
“advantage.” Nevertheless, he concludes that his findings suggest that we
“may have more time to prepare for an eventual pandemic.”
The three flu epidemics of the 20th century were caused by the H1, H2 and
H3 series of bird flu viruses. All scientists agree that the H5N1 virus
must go through many mutations before it can be spread by human-to-human
contact. Not only does it infect the lowest part of the lungs, but it
appears that the only way a human can get it from chickens is by close
contact with lots of infected birds; the kind of thing that can happen
when you sleep with them.
So here we have a virus, which: has never, as far as we know, spread from
one human to another; is hard to get in the first place; if someone does
have it, is not released easily by the lungs and to the extent it is, in
tiny quantities compared with sleeping in a chicken coop; and has to go
through a large number of unlikely mutations first in order to become a
pandemic in humans. One of those mutations, presumably, will be to
transfer its preference to the top of the lungs from the bottom, probably
the least likely of all.
Given all these obstacles, is it science to conclude that it is only “a
matter of time” before this virus causes a human pandemic? Or is this the
sort of “prediction” you’d expect from government-funded politicized
science where the prime imperative is not Truth but staying plugged-in to
the government-drip machine?
And to stay plugged-in, to get the next government grant, you’ve got to
follow the party line, which is: a bird flu pandemic is inevitable. As
entrenched government programs are almost never axed, I expect to go on
reading that “prediction” until the day I die…of natural causes.
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