Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Something to keep your eye on ...

Almost everyone is familiar with the seasonal bug panic, be it West Nile virus in the US, or SARS, dengue hemmoragic fever, and hoof and mouth disease here in Asia. Yet the viral menace that most merits vigilance is avian flu, also known as H5N1.

The strain of avian flu that has officials at the UN World Health Organization so worried made its first appearance in Hong Kong in 1997. But at the time, the virus’ spread was, for the most part, confined to birds.

A spate of articles, most notably in The New York Times, have noted that the virus is clearly getting stronger, and health officials in Thailand are worried that they have seen the first human-to-human transmission. Of the 40 some odd people who have taken ill with the virus, 70-75 percent have died.

Whenever influenza becomes the topic of discussion, someone invariably mentions the Spanish Flu of 1918, which had a fatality rate of 2.5 percent, and culled more of the global population than World War I. Most virologists acknowledge that there is no way to predict what happens when such a virus makes the species jump complete. It is always in the realm of possibility, like what happened with SARS, that the virus could become less lethal as it travels from body to body, as immune systems come up with coping mechanisms. Then again, the reverse could be true as the virus combines with others, thereby constantly changing its genetic make up.

As of now, the most pressing concern is how unequipped and under-funded countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are to deal with the disease. When I was in Hanoi at the beginning of this year, the Vietnamese government was wrestling with another outbreak of the flu among chickens. At the time it was well known that the Vietnamese government was only offering one-third of the market price to poultry farmers who had been ordered to kill their stock. It is not surprising that many farmers opted to kill their chickens and try to sell them in the markets, rather than take the loss.

Many governments in South-East Asia cannot afford to take the kind of preventative measures that are needed to stem the virus’ mutations. With all the hand wringing over the terrorist threat during the past three years, one would think that governments of developed nations would be eager to fund a “preemptive” attack on a growing menace that could well wipe out more people than terrorists could.

The affairs of developing nations are often seen as none of our concern, but as the SARS scare proved, ignoring their failures can quickly become our own undoing.

It is like having a pipe burst in the closet, closing the closet door, and then acting gobsmacked at the fact that water is now all over your living room floor.

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