Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is an infectious disease caused by a virus that affects both birds and mammals. Notable symptoms include fever, chills, muscle and body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. Most people who diagnosed with the flu may pop a few over-the-counter pills, miss a few days of work and survive the incident with little complication.
Ferris Bueller is reminiscing about being sick and having a day off.
H5N1, commonly referred to as the “bird flu” or “avian flu,” is a subtype of an influenza virus. Humans who contact infected poultry or contaminated material may develop the avian flu, which can result in severe respiratory illness, respiratory failure and other life-threatening complications. According to the World Health Organization, most laboratory cases of humans infected with avian flu result in the death of the patient.
Alfred Hitchcock never imagined that the birds could wreck such havoc.
Still, although deadly, reported incidents of avian flu have been fairly limited. The virus may be relatively common among poultry in several countries in Asia and the Middle East and it may have been observed in Europe and Africa, but as of last month only around 600 laboratory cases involving humans have been observed worldwide. That’s a fairly positive statistic, given that those 600 laboratory cases resulted in the death of over 350 patients. An extrapolation of that figure to a global scale would translate to a worldwide epidemic that may well rival the Spanish Flu and kill upwards of 50 million people to 150 million people.
We may well be moving closer to this type of widespread catastrophe. Recently, researchers from Erasmus Medical College in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the University of Wisconsin – Madison created a highly contagious strain of H5N1. Their testing demonstrated that the virus could be transmitted from one ferret to another ferret. These animals are fairly reliable indicators of the behavior of influenza viruses in humans, and the communicability of the virus suggests that this new strain of H5N1 may be capable of being transmitted from one human to another human.
Stephen King believes that we should take a stand against the creation of a deadly, man-made superflu.
He’s not alone, as many notable scientists have voiced concerns about the implications of the research. For example, Dr. D. A. Henderson, a scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a leader in eradicating the smallpox virus, claims that the research should never have been conducted and that the risks outweigh any potential benefit that could be derived from the work. Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University and an an expert in bioweapons, agreed with Dr. Henderson, but further explained that “[t]his research should never have been done… [The strain] will inevitably escape, and within a decade…”
Michael Crichton understands the possibility that an andromeda strain may well escape heavily-controlled conditions.
He’s right, but the concerns associated with the man-made superflu are not limited to the possibility that it could escape the confines of a laboratory and infect tens or hundreds of millions of people. Instead, researchers are determined to fully publish their research in Science and Nature, two prominent scholastic journals. The publication of the full details of the research could enable terrorist groups or hostile countries to create similar, highly infectious strains that may be used as biological weapons of mass destruction.
Dr. Evil has raised his pinkie to his mouth, and he’s grinning.
The villain may be a work of fiction, but the concerns are embedded in reality. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the federal advisory committee responsible for offering leadership and guidance on biological research that could be misused to endanger national security and public health, reviewed the materials. It recommended against the publication of the entirety of the research. The federal agency expressed its concerns to the original research teams, interested nations and the World Health Organization at a summit held in Geneva. Regardless, attendees and world governments at the closed-door summit announced a surprising and unexpected agreement to publish the full details of the research.
Ronald Reagan is still reminding us about the terrifying implications of officials from the governing being here to help.
Other governments may have reached a terrifying conclusion, but the United States has continued to place an emphasis on the protection of the public…. at least until several days ago. At that time, the U.S National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reversed its position and declared that the studies should be fully and openly published in scientific journals. Dr. Paul Keim, the acting Chairman of the committee, explained that it changed its recommendation because it now believes that the experiments were not as dangerous as originally believed and that the benefits are greater than originally perceived. Not surprisingly, the editors of Science and Nature immediately declared that they would publish the research as soon as possible.
Although another political figure is reminded of the consequences of voting in favor of an important issue before voting against the same issue, I’m personally reminded that stories about pink slime, half-baked breadsticks and eight pound hamburgers cause much less stress than developments about an issue that threatens unprecedented global disaster.