Fear of New Flu

(I read this at The Paper Machete on March 10, 2012. With the news of a new strain of bird flu, I felt the time was right to finally post this on my blog.)

According to an article in Tuesday, March 6’s New York Times, essentially the only thing we have to fear in the fight against bird flu, or H5N1, is that amateurs could mutate the virus.

That’s right, amateurs. Not someone at USAMRIID, the army’s biomedical research facility. Not someone at the CDC, but amateurs.

The concern stems from a group of scientists doing experiments where H5N1 was manipulated to a mutant form that spreads easier than it does today. According to the Times’ article, papers on the findings will eventually be published, although no one knows when. According to a November 20, 2011 article by the New York Times, the United States government doesn’t want the exact procedures released in the articles because it could give bioterrorists a how-to guide for creating weaponized H5N1.

The idea of people mutating viruses and bacteria in their basements might seem harmless, but according to the article there is a website called DIYbio.org that has D.I.Y. biologists, about 2,000 of them. But if you think of it as a terrorist, there is the problem that too many Americans don’t think of people harmlessly manipulating pathogens in a garage, they think of something much more dangerous.

Let me put it this way: The creation of meth is also a science since the wrong balance or positioning of ingredients can trigger a toxic, dangerous explosion. In a way, meth cooks are also scientists. This, by the way, is not a conclusion I came to by binging on Breaking Bad, but that might have helped.

So, in short, people who manipulate pathogens outside of a laboratory are like meth cooks.

Now the dreams of people will be haunted by the idea that we might not only catch bird flu, but it might be caused by crazed, harried people who decide that manipulating science is the best hobby in the world. 

Hypothetically, we should panic. H5N1 is extremely rare to occur in humans since it mostly kills birds. However, when it does occur in humans, it’s generally lethal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 600 people have contracted H5N1 in the past decade. According to the World Health Organization, about half of those people have died from H5N1. But there’s good news: No cases of H5N1 have occurred in the United States, although there was an outbreak of the closely related H5N2 in Texas in 2004.

The problem with a mutated version of H5N1 is that not only could it easily spread from person-to-person, but it might also be more lethal. This could be inadvertent, but still possible.

But this is a new-ish disease that will terrify Americans. If there’s anything that can be learned from the history of America during the past 30 years it is that we can look forward to the deafening paranoia of people afraid of becoming sick.

The eventual panic and fear that will set into Americans will be similar to what happened when Swine Flu, or H1N1, broke out. Generally speaking, when a slightly new disease shows up, we flip out.

In 2009, H1N1 was actually a pandemic since it affected the entire world, but swine flu was not a new disease. I don’t remember when the panic over swine flu on television started, but I remember reading the first article to appear in the New York Times, which happened on April 24, 2009 with the headline “Unusual Strain of Swine Flu is Found in People in 2 States.” On April 25, 2009, the New York Times reported that the Swine Flu outbreak killed about 61 people. The next day it was reported that students in Queens were ill and it seemed to be from H1N1 and that at least 81 people were dead in Mexico. On April 26, 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared a public health emergency, although the New York Times reported that she felt as though it was a form of emergency preparedness.

The World Health Organization better explains the reaction to the disease in their publication “Evolution of a Pandemic.” On April 27, phase 4 was declared which means that a pandemic could happen. On April 29, Phase 5 was declared meaning that a pandemic was inevitable. On that day every confirmed case was in North America, except for some cases in Spain. A month later, H1N1 had spread to South America, most of Western Europe and most of Asia. On June 11, Phase 6 was declared and in that month there were 30,000 confirmed cases. Phase 6 meant that a pandemic was underway.

According to an article in the December 2009 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, one of my favorite publications, entitled “Estimates of the Prevalence of Pandemic (H1N1) 2009, United States, April-July 2009,” 43,677 confirmed cases of H1N1 occurred in the United States between April and the end of July 2009. Of those cases there were 5,009 hospitalizations and 302 deaths. The authors of this article estimated that between 1.8 and 5.7 million people were infected with H1N1, but did not estimate the amount of deaths. This means that of confirmed infections, 0.69 percent of people died.

That does not sound like an awful disease to be afraid of. But still, we freaked out about swine flu. But in late April 2009, very little was known other than that it was killing people in Mexico and cases were being seen here in America.  I remember walking into a Walgreens in Cedar Falls, Iowa at the time that Swine Flu cases were starting to be seen and they were sold out of facemasks and Purell. At that time, there were no H1N1 cases confirmed near Cedar Falls, Iowa.

In a way, when a new disease breaks out, we become like the audiences for that film Contagion. Someone starts coughing on the Red Line or sneezes and you suddenly want to jump into a biohazard suit and quarantine your home. The idea of a new disease terrifies us because of how little is known. So what if a majority of people who die have compromised immune systems due to a variety of factors? It’s a new disease that not that many people know about and it could still kill us. For some reason, people seem to think that all viruses and bacteria are evil, forgetting that there’s good bacteria that rests on our skin and in our stomachs. Bacteria are in our food and make it awesome. The problem with influenza strains is that it seems as though we collectively forget that people die from seasonal influenza every year.

But if a mutated version of Bird Flu arrives, we can expect every pharmacy and store to sell out of Purell and facemasks. At least the good news for celebrities that are fearful of germs is that we’ve already seen facial masks on the red carpet in the past year.


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