Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Saturday, October 22, 2005

It is a bad, bad virus

I've been distracted here at Nature Noted in recent weeks. First, baseball is taking up much more of my time than normal (Go Astros) but I've also been morbidly fascinated by the growing concern over Avian Flu. One of the wonderful things we're blessed with here in Memphis is the presence of St. Jude Children's Hospital. The main mission of the hospital is to treat childhood cancer. But it is also a top-flight research center, complete with Nobel Prize winners. It also happens that one of the top influenza experts in the world is here as well, Dr. Robert Webster. Earlier this week, Webster held a news conference here, that frankly, scared the bejesus out of me.
Webster has been studying the influenza virus for the past 30 years. He and his team at St. Jude have developed a vaccine against the H5N1 virus that can be used in birds, but so far, not in humans. Webster speaks in a slow, measured British accent, and says completely frightening things very matter of factly. Such as....

-Avian flu is coming. It's not a matter of if, but when.
-This strain of the virus has a 50% mortality rate.
-It will probably first show up in Alaska and then the West Coast, carried by wild ducks. And if does mutate to humans, it will be as near as your closest international airport.
-The United States is absolutely not prepared for this.
-Everyone should be prepared to stay inside, in a personal quarantine for as long as seven months.

Webster is watching the mutations in the virus, currently in Asia, with alarm...
"But I am very, very concerned it will achieve the last few mutations that will allow it to spread from human to human," Webster said. "This is the worst influenza virus I have ever encountered."
Webster, who has studied flu viruses for decades, also directs the World Health Organization's U.S. Collaborating Center, which focuses on the ecology of animal flu viruses.
Webster noted that unlike most flu viruses, this one kills the ducks that normally serve as its host. It also has killed tigers and cats that were fed chickens carrying the virus. And, while most flu viruses will give ferrets the sniffles, this virus spreads to their brains, causing paralysis and death.
"It is very scary. It is a bad, bad virus."

His advice on personal quarantine only underscores his concern. He says everyone should have enough supplies to stay inside for at least a month, possibly longer. He also advises getting a flu shot.
The flu shot will reduce someone's disease risk now and chances of sparking the next pandemic.
One pandemic scenario involves the bird flu virus picking up the genetic information it needs to spread easily in humans through the chance infection of someone who is also infected with a human flu virus.
Webster said getting a flu shot means "you have less chance to be the mixing vessel.
"All my staff have been vaccinated.

Since the news conference, my wife and I have talked about scenarios. It would be easy enough to pull our daughter out of school, and Robin's painting business can go on hold. But I'd still need to go to work. Do I quarantine myself in a different part of the house from the girls, stock up on masks and germ fighting soap, and hope for the best? Scary stuff.
When encountering the new and scary, the first think I do is read up on it.
I'm in the middle of the excellent The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry. You'll learn not only about the deadly pandemic of 1918, but also how influenza jumps from animals to humans, why it can be so deadly or so mild, and how it mutates. You'll also learn about the history of modern american medicine and why Woodrow Wilson's way of waging war spread the 1918 strain around the world.
My advice... learn what you can, and be vigilant. If we're lucky, this one won't mutate, and this will be just another one of those scares like swine flu back in the '70's. But if it does come, you'll want to be as ready as you possibly can.


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