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Avian Flu: Pandemic or Panic?

Posted on: 26-10-2005

“Bird Flu Could Kill 150 Million People.”
(BBC News, 30/9/05)

“Spanish Flu of 1918: Could It Happen Again?”
(BBC News, 5/10/05)

“Bird Flu Pandemic Risk ‘Very High’.”
(CNN, 12/10/05)

“Bush Plan Shows U.S. Is Not Ready for Deadly Flu”
(New York Times, 8/10/05)

These are only a few of dozens of headlines we've been bombarded with in the last weeks and months... and the situation, it seems, is getting progressively worse.

But is it really?
The above-mentioned CNN article, for example, warns that since 2003, sixty people in Asia have died from the bird flu; about twice that number have been infected.
60 deaths in three years, on a continent with a population of 3.3 billion. Wow. Especially when you consider that in the U.S., about 36,000 Americans die each year from complications related to the normal garden variety of the flu.
It may not sound like much, but that's beside the point, asserts a recent article in the New York Daily News. "Avian strains of influenza don't normally infect humans, but this one has mutated and made the interspecies leap. What's more, the influenza viruses behind the last two pandemics were of avian origin."

Another worrisome fact, says the article, is that unlike prior strains of avian flu, the current one is "highly pathogenic," meaning that it kills nearly all the poultry it infects. Of course there is no telling whether the virus, if it should mutate--and it's still a big if--would be equally lethal to humans. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that billions will be affected, mostly because our immune systems have no built-up defense against the new virus.

But how great is the risk that the "big if" happens? Pretty great, according to the experts. To become transferable from human to human, the strain would have to undergo an antigenic shift, an "abrupt and major change of the proteins inside the virus that results in a brand-new subtype," says the New York Daily News. "Such a shift could occur if a person who's harboring human influenza simultaneously becomes infected with H5N1. His lungs would then turn into a lab experiment in which the two viruses could 'reassort,' meaning that a chunk from the genome of the human influenza would insert itself into the genome of the avian flu."

Due to modern travel, a pandemic would spread quickly. The Bush Administration recently drafted up a 381-page plan, which predicts that "hospitals would become overwhelmed, riots would engulf vaccination clinics, and even power and food would be in short supply," the New York Times reported. The plan calls for "quarantine and travel restrictions but concedes that such measures 'are unlikely to delay introduction of pandemic disease into the U.S. by more than a month or two.'"

Reportedly, scientists are feverishly working to develop a vaccine in time to inoculate the general population. Which may or may not work; after all, to create a functional vaccine you need the exact virus you want to protect people against. (That is one of the reasons that the efficacy of annual flu shots is so questionable: The vaccine used contains the flu strain from the year before.) Currently, there is no such virus since H5N1 hasn't mutated yet.
And even if there were an effective vaccine, there wouldn't be enough of it to treat the entire population. 60 million doses is all we can produce domestically--barely enough for 15 million, or 5%, of Americans.

The other--and so far more feasible--medical solution is oseltamivir phosphate, brand name Tamiflu, which has proven to be effective against H5N1. The WHO has called upon all countries to start stockpiling Tamiflu--a difficult proposition since there is only one company in the world, Roche, that makes the drug.
"While England has already ordered enough Tamiflu to treat 25% of its population," the New York Daily News comments, "the U.S. has requested a mere 2.3 million treatments--enough for less than 1% of the country's inhabitants."
It doesn't take much imagination to picture which 1% of the population that is.

However, even the "miracle drug" may not be as miraculous as it seems: Just last week, scientists discovered a mutated strain of avian flu in a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl that proved resistant to Tamiflu (but responded to another antiviral drug, zanamivir). These two are the only drugs that can keep H5N1 at bay--but for how long?
We admit that it looks like the matter is serious, yet we won't panic anytime soon. First of all, there is still no proof that H5N1 will turn into a worldwide pandemic, even though it might have made the leap to human/human transfer already... the Vietnamese girl has had no known contact with birds and is now suspected to have contracted the disease from her brother.) But even if the antigenic shift happens, we still don't know that H5N1 will wipe out tens of millions across the globe. It may run its--moderate--course in Asia and then slowly die off once more and more people acquire immunity against it.

However this plays out, it seems there is nothing or not much we can do anyway. And we have learned a long time ago that it's a waste of time and energy to worry about things we cannot change. Besides, studies have shown that excessive worrying can weaken the immune system--just about the last thing we need right now.
Our advice: Live healthy, eat lots of garlic (either fresh or as juice or supplements--garlic is highly antiviral), and focus on the bright side of life.

Also, as we have suggested in past such articles, consider a move to the country. Due to the ebb and flow of a large number of people, the odds are far greater that any pandemic would first break out in a city--which then will be quarantined with residents on the inside
looking out.

Source: “Investors’ Insight”, What We Now Know - Week of 18/10/2005

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