16 October 2006

Crying wolf... or am I?

There was a fairly significant hue and cry a little while ago in the media about avian influenza. Unfortunately, after people didn't start dropping like flies in a timely fashion shortly thereafter, all the fuss died away. This cycle, if you will, is referred to as the "law of diminishing returns" and it is part of human nature.

In some ways, "the law" serves a useful purpose. If, for example, men got as excited about every new vehicle they saw driving down the road, as they did when they were teenage boys on the cusp of getting a driver's license, there would be way fewer marriages and way more traffic fatalities.

In the context of avian flu however, this very human tendency could have disastrous results for humankind. Avian flu is a huge threat to us because we have no natural immunity to a disease normally found only in other species.
The first newly confirmed case occurred in a 67-year-old woman from West Java Province. She developed symptoms on 3 October, was hospitalized on 7 October, and died on 15 October. Diagnosis was complicated by the presence of chronic diseases. Chickens reportedly died in her household and neighbourhood prior to symptom onset.
I do know that major cities will be the tripwire for the next pandemic in North America and I will act on this information. At the first sign of a possible Canadian outbreak, I will be pulling my son out of school, stocking up on consumables and figuratively pulling up the drawbridge. We will then sit out the worst of this thing, which, when it goes human-to-human is predicted to burn through the populace like a hot knife through butter. Hopefully, the electrity supply will not be affected, but we will otherwise be ok, out here in the sticks.

The fact is, governments around the world are not at all prepared for another pandemic along the lines of the Spanish Flu. We saw how unprepared Toronto was for the relatively insignificant outbreak that was SARS.

This next pandemic, be it avian flu, or something even more virulent, has the potential to really 'thin the herd'... something nature seems to need to do in 80 to 100 year cycles. I should mention, by the way, that most scientists researching pandemics say we're overdue for another.

For an excellent read on what a real pandemic could be like I suggest picking up "Flu" by Gina Kolata, a science reporter for The New York Times.

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