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MAG: Avian Flu, On the Verge of an Epidemic
Sun Feb 20 2005 11:30:41 ET
The vicious avian flu that has killed dozens of people in Vietnam, Thailand, and elsewhere in the region "has caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals in nearly a dozen Asian countries" in the past two years and could kill millions of people if it becomes capable of spreading efficiently among humans, Michael Specter reports in "Nature's Bioterrorist" (p.50), in the February 28, 2005, issue of The New Yorker.
"No such virus has ever spread so quickly over such a wide geographical area," Specter notes, and, unlike most viruses, "this one has already affected a more diverse group than any other type of flu, and it has killed many animals previously thought to be resistant." One farmer whose chickens were killed by the virus says, "It's damn hard to watch. One day, they're all alive and healthy-the vets were here the week before to check them-and the next day they're dying by the thousand. It happened so quickly. They started shivering, thousands of them at once. And then they started to fall. Every one of them. They just fell over, dead." Scott Dowell, the director of the Centers for Disease Control's Thailand office, tells Specter, "The world just has no idea what it's going to see if this thing comes. When, really. It's when. I don't think we can afford the luxury of the word 'if' anymore.... The clock is ticking. We just don't know what time it is."
Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, in Memphis, who has been studying avian influenza for decades, is even more stark. "This is the worst flu virus I have ever seen or worked with or read about," he says. "We have to prepare as if we were going to war-and the public needs to understand that clearly. This virus is playing its role as a natural bioterrorist. The politicians are going to say Chicken Little is at it again. And, if I'm wrong, then thank God. But if it does happen, and I fully expect that it will, there will be no place for any of us to hide. Not in the United States or in Europe or in a bunker somewhere. The virus is a very promiscuous and effective killer."
Not all politicians have ignored the threat; when Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced his resignation, last December, he cited an avian- influenza epidemic as one of the greatest dangers the United States faces. The World Health Organization's conservative estimate of the number of deaths that an epidemic would cause is seven million worldwide. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, calculates that a pandemic on the scale of the devastating global influenza epidemic of 1918 would kill at least a hundred and eighty million people today. Specter reports on the efforts of health officials in the United States, Thailand, and other countries to contain the virus as best they can.
Thailand and Vietnam have ordered the slaughter of millions of chickens and the alteration of centuries-old farming methods, with mixed results. There is no vaccine, but, even if one could be produced to fight the constantly evolving strains of the virus, it would be impossible to meet the overwhelming demand. "Vigilance," Specter writes, "is one of the few weapons available." As one senior official at the Thai Ministry of Public Health says, "We are certainly better than we ever were at detecting viruses. But we are also much better at spreading them."
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