Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Flu! Are You Ready?

Your attention please! You can do something about this!

You've probably heard all about it: a big 'flu epidemic is overdue, and is likely to happen in the next year or two. So what does that mean to you? A greater number of sneezes next winter?

What should it mean to you?

Consider this. Flu kills.

Even the standard A-types that can make your life a misery carry off a noticeable fraction of the population each year, and the strain that's brewing in the bird population of SE Asia (and now the Russian steppes) isn't your standard A-type 'flu.

Oh, well? Have to get a flu shot, then. Dream on! There are no stocks of vaccine for this one. It will take far longer to develop them than it would for an outbreak to spread.

If WHO were to be warning about an outbreak of Ebola, you might sit up a little more. After all, Ebola is a particularly nasty way to go. But, while it's infectious, that's only in close proximity.

Now, what if the warnings were about bubonic plague? Is that scarier?.

OK then, how about this: a New Scientist editorial made a simple but grim calculation. If 1 in 3 people are infected (as typically happens with 'flu in any given year), and if the fatality rate for the avian 'flu is 75% (as it currently stands), then that points to a possible fatality rate of 1 in 4.

That's Black Death territory. Indeed, there is a certain school of thought that suggests that the Death wasn't bubonic plague at all. The spread patterns don't match the known outbreaks nearly as well as... 'flu!

And, when the storm does break and a human transmissible form does arise, all it takes is for each new case to spawn slightly less than 2 more cases. With a world population of six billion (2 raised to the power 35), and an incubation period of 2 days, it could require no more than 2 x 35, or 70 days (2 months) to infect the entire world population. A plausible scenario, given the ease of travel these days.

That's right: avian 'flu could be every bit as spreadable, contagious and fatal as the most devastating plague in recorded history.

Even the Spanish 'flu of 1917-18 had a fatality rate of 'only' 5%. It killed more people than the Great War preceding it.

Do I have your attention yet?

Good! Because that was the bad news.

The good news is that there are things that can and are being done. While it would be nice to have a comfortable stockpile of vaccine, there are things that scientists and health authorities can do to monitor likely spread that were unthinkable even a decade ago.

And, as I said at the start, there are things that you can do, too.

Things such as :
  • reading this WorldChanging posting and associated links
  • following the practical advice it contains about practices that minimise spread.
  • starting to practise that advice now (eg remembering to blow into your elbow rather than your hands isn't something you want to be learning too late)
  • take WorldChanging's advice (as I am doing) and spread the message on your own blog, chat room, whatever. (Remember, all it takes is for 2 people to propagate your message...)
Finally, take heart in that what I've painted above is a hypothetical, intentionally alarmist, worst case scenario that will only happen if we let it.

If we rely on central authorities to work it all out for us.

If we panic when we realise, too late, that the problem is beyond them.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home