Avian Flu: The Monster at the Door
By Mike Davis
As in a classic 1950s sci-fi thriller, our world is imperiled by a terrifying monster. Scientists try to sound the alarm, but politicians ignore the threat until its too late. Indifference ultimately turns into panic.
The monster, of course, is H5N1, the lethal avian flu that first emerged in 1997 in Hong Kong and is now entrenched—in an even more lethal strain—in a half dozen Southeast Asian countries. It has recently killed scores of farmers and poultry workers who have had direct contact with sick birds.
For seven years researchers have warned that H5N1 would eventually fall in love with a human influenza virus in the body of sick person (or possibly a pig) and produce a mutant offspring that could travel at pandemic velocity from human to human.
The media episodically gives page fifteen coverage to these warnings, which, at most, cause a small shudder before readers turn the page to more important stories about Paris Hilton’s sex video or John Kerry’s war record.
Ironically, in our ‘culture of fear’—with Ashcroft and Ridge ceaselessly ranting that the terrorist apocalypse is nigh—the least attention is given to the threat that is truly most threatening.
On September 14, Dr. Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for the western Pacific, tried to shake complacency with an urgent warning that human-to-human transmission of avian flu was a “high possibility.”
Two weeks later (28 September), grim-faced Thai officials revealed that the dreaded viral leap had already occurred. A young mother, who had died on September 20, most likely had contracted virus directly from her dying child.
A crucial threshold has been crossed. Of course, as Thai officials hastened to point out, one isolated case doesn’t make a pandemic. Human-to-human avian flu would need a certain critical mass, a minimum initial incidence, before it could begin to decimate the world.
The precedent always invoked to illustrate how this might happen is the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: the single greatest mortality event in human history. In only 24 weeks, a deadly avian flu strain killed from 2 to 5 per cent of humanity (50 to 100 million people—including 675,000 Americans) from the Aleutians to Patagonia.
But some researchers worry that H5N1 is actually an even more deadly threat than H1N1 (the 1918 virus).
First of all, this flu—at least in its bird-to-human form—is a far more vicious killer. In 1918-19, 2.5 per cent of infected Americans died. In contrast, more than 70 per cent of this year’s H5N1 cases (30 out of 42) have perished: a lethality comparable to ebola fever and other nightmare emergent diseases.
The Center for Disease Control has estimated that a new pandemic would infect 40 to 100 million Americans. Multiply that by a 70 per cent kill rate and ponder your family’s future.
Secondly, as the WHO has repeatedly emphasized, the avian flu seems to have conquered an ecological niche of unprecedented dimension. The rise of factory poultry farming in Asia over the last decade, and the dangerously unhygienic conditions in farms and plants, have created a perfect incubator for the new virus.
Moreover, in the face of desperate WHO efforts to geographically contain the avian pandemic by destroying infected bird populations, the virus has literally taken flight. H5N1 has been identified in dead herons, gulls, egrets, hawks and pigeons. Like West Nile, it has wings with which it can cross oceans and potentially infect bird populations everywhere.
In August, furthermore, the Chinese announced that the avian strain had been detected in pigs. This is a particularly ominous development since pigs, susceptible to both bird and human flu, are likely crucibles for genetic “reassortment” between viruses. Containment seems to have failed.
Thirdly, a new pandemic will use modern transportation. The 1918-19 virus was slowed by ocean-going transport and the isolation of rural society. Its latterday descendant could jet-hop the globe in a week.
Finally, the mega-slums of Asia, Africa and Latin America are like so many lakes of gasoline awaiting the spark of H5N1. Third World urbanization has created unparalleled high-density concentrations of poor people in ill health, ripe for viral slaughter.
What are the frontlines of defense against such an unthinkable catastrophe?
One of the most urgent tasks is to ensure that poultry workers in Southeast Asia receive ordinary flu vaccinations in order to prevent possible mixing of human and avian genes. But current production of seasonal flu vaccine is mostly consigned to the richer countries, and Thai officials have complained that they cannot obtain enough donated doses to conduct a systematic vaccination.
Meanwhile a prototype H5N1 vaccine is under development, but only in quantities to safeguard frontline public health and safety workers in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Pharmaceutical companies to date have not found sufficient profit incentives to increase their output of vaccines and virals. As the New York Times emphasized last Thursday (September 30), there has been a disastrous “mismatch of public health needs and private control of production of vaccines and drugs.”
Indeed last April, at a historic WHO-convened summit about global defenses against a possible pandemic, leading experts expressed their deep pessimism about existing preparations.
“The consultation concluded that supplies of vaccine, the first line of defense for preventing high morbidity and mortality, would be grossly inadequate at the start of a pandemic and well into the first wave of international spread.”
“Limited production capacity largely concentrated in Europe and North America,” the WHO report continues,” would exacerbate the problem of inequitable access.”
“Inequitable access,’ of course, is a euphemism for the death of a large segment of humanity: a callous triage already prepared in advance of the H5N1 plague by indifference to third world public health.
This is the moral context of the deafening silence about the H5N1 threat in the current presidential debate. Although the General Accounting Office recently concluded that “no state is fully prepared to respond to a major public health threat,” the Kerry camp has failed to sound the tocsin about the Bush administration’s lethargic preparations.
Only Ralph Nader appears to be fully awake to the peril. In a letter to President Bush in August, he repeated scientific warnings that the “The Big One” was coming and urged a “presidential conference on influenza epidemics and pandemics” to confront “the looming threats to the health of millions of people.”
It has become fashionable, of course, in some “progressive” circles to excoriate Nader’s presence in the campaign as divisive egoism. But who else is warning us about the Monster at the door?
Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities: And Other Tales as well as Ecology of Fear, and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, among other books.
—CommonDreams.org, September 30, 2004