Thursday, April 18, 2013

Potentially The Scariest Thing I Have Read in My Life

Chinese Government Suspects Human-to-Human Transmission of H7N9 Bird Flu
(The line above is hyper-link.  Click on it to go to the article in US News and World Report.)

Just had to post about this article as this is something I have been following since it appeared on the world stage about 3 weeks ago.
The linked article is possibly the most scary article I have ever read in my life. We worry about terrorism and guns, but the real threat in today's world is a pandemic. In the last several weeks a new deadly strain of bird flu has appeared in China.  I first read of this new strain of flu during the first week of April when the first fatalities were reported.  As has been the hallmark of recently emerged strains of flu, this flu was traced to poultry and was believed to only be spread through bird to human contact.

Today's article highlights what is possibly the worst fear - that this deadly strain of flu is now spread through human to human contact.  So far it appears that the contact required to spread from person to person needs to be extensive as the cases of human-to-human transmission appear to be limited to within families.  If this flu were to develop the capability to be transmitted through casual contact then the prospects of a catastrophe of biblical portions becomes a realistic outcome.  The kind of contact that I am referring to the kind of contact where if I have the flu and touch an object like a door knob and someone else comes along and touches that door knob they will also get the flu.  This is the way the common cold or flu spreads.

Let's look at some facts to get an idea of what a flu pandemic could do.
- Though there have been other, milder pandemics since then, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is a benchmark to which pandemics are always compared.  From historical records this flu is thought to have started in the American mid-west and was transmitted from swine to people.  The mobilization of young men for duty in WWI seems to have helped this flu pandemic spread throughout the world.  This pandemic lasted for 2 years from 1918 to 1920.
- In 1918 when the Spanish Flu Pandemic started the world population was approximately 1.8 billion people. 
- Over the course of the next 2 years about 1/3 of the worlds population would be infected with the Spanish Flu.
- Mortality rates for this flu were in the range of 10 - 15% of the people infected.  
- Depending upon the figures used, this pandemic killed between 3 - 5% of the total world population.  The exact numbers are very imprecise as record keeping in those years was sketchy and there weren't computers or statistical systems to keep track of these numbers.
- Today the world's population is almost 7.1 billion people.
- If H7N9 flu becomes a pandemic and it has similar infections rates, over 2.1 billion people will eventually be infected.
- As of today, 17 of the 87 known people infected with the H7N9 flu have died, which is a mortality rate of just shy of 20%.
- If the infections rates and mortality rates were to remain the same that would translate into a death toll of 400+ million people throughout the world.

Those are facts but there are a number of other things to be considered.  A flu is typically more severe and deadly when it is starting.  In 1918 when the Spanish Flu Pandemic started it took months for the flu to migrate from one part of the world to another.  As a result in some places by the time it hit, the overall severity of the flu had diminished.  With global air travel, a new strain of flu could reach the vast majority of the world in several days.  So once the flu reaches a point of easy transmission from one person to another, it could be off like wildfire - arriving in every region of the world in it's most deadly form before any kind of vaccine could be developed.  Though we currently feel safe in the fact that this flu is starting on the opposite side of the world, it could arrive at our doorsteps in a matter of days.

Though not a direct result of the flu ancillary deaths could also be in the tens or hundreds of millions.  With the world so connected today via international commerce, very few people maintain stockpiles of food and other commodities.  One of the first major impacts of a world-wide pandemic would be the disruption of international commerce.  As governments strove to stop the spread of the disease, international commerce links between countries would be severed.  By stopping international commerce the very lifeblood of many nations would be destroyed.  There would be no more strawberries from Chile, nor kiwi fruit from New Zealand or oil from the Middle East.  It's possible that many people in big cities would starve or once winter set in freeze due to lack of fuel for heat.  It is also possible that people would die through the resulting social strife associated with a tragedy of this magnitude.

In the end run all of this is a very nasty proposition.  But the bleak fact is that a pandemic of significance is likely to happen at some point in the future.  Human history has proven that pandemics will occur.  Whether we are vigilant or not, at some point, maybe now, maybe 10 years in the future, or even further from now, some form of flu will find a way to gain a toehold in the population and then eventually spread with significant impact.  

For me, I'll keep following this story as I feel it is important and it good to understand what could happen.  Hopefully this flu will turn out to be nothing.

If anyone is interested in how the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 impacted the world here are a couple of interesting books about it.  

"The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History"

" A Cruel Wind: Pandemic Flu in America 1918 - 1920"

"America's Forgot Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918"

I've read "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History" and it definitely opened my eyes to what happened less than 100 years ago.

Well - I hope I haven't been too much of a downer for the day.  If so, please drink a glass of wine and try not to think about it.  But on the other hand, it never hurts to be prepared in case something like this does happen.

Thanks and peace to all! ~ J.

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