Thursday, March 23, 2006

Birds Of A Feather

Tonight I read this really fascinating article in the City Pages, our local alternative weekly, about the potential bird flu pandemic. The article consists of an interview with Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease. He is widely considered one of the foremost experts on Infectious Disease around the world.

His essential premise is that the H5N1 virus that first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997 is a "kissing cousin" of the 1918 virus that killed 5% of those it infected. The genetic make-up is remarkably similar and the fact that both seem to have passed directly from birds to humans makes them different from the viruses that struck in 1957 and 1968. Unlike the 1918 virus, this one has killed nearly 55% of those infected. That is what makes it so dangerous.

He goes on to explain how this flu pandemic, if it even materializes, will spread much more quickly than most people realize and the we (the entire world) are woefully unprepared. He states that not only is a potential vaccine years away, but the entire heath care infrastructure would collapse under the weight of the overwhelming demand for just-in-time supplies. The devastating way in which hurricane Katrina separated people from adequate heath care, establishing evacuation as the only response, would be repeated in cities all across the country.

The good news? He feels the H5N1 is not likely to have a major impact in this country largely due to factory farms. He explains it this way:

CP: Do you think the rise of poultry farms of vast scale has contributed to the viral soup that influenza viruses grow in?

Osterholm: Not really, and I'll tell you why. When you look at the rise of the really big bird operations, they are actually raised in these bio-security barns, which people have all kinds of problems with for entirely different reasons-humaneness and that kind of thing. They actually are very safe, generally speaking, because they keep the wild birds and the domestic birds separate. It's in Asia where you have all these small 20-, 40-, 50-chicken operations where the birds are living in open space with you-that's where the vast majority of the chicken population is at in the developing world. A good example is Turkey, where we're seeing the first cases outside of Asia now. This is taking the virus out of a tropical area and putting it in a temperate area that gets cold. Every night, those people bring their chickens into the house. It's just a very different mindset. And for as much as this is going to come here someday, [bird-to-human transmission] is not going to be a big risk factor to humans on this continent, because other than free-ranging organic birds that are out there, domestic birds aren't going to be at big risk.
The bottom line is that just like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, pandemic influenza happens. Whether this will be the one is impossible to predict. Read the whole article here.


DrKNOW said...

I actually went to school with the first author of the Science paper where the 1918 virus was sequenced and "determined" to be of avian origin. Truth is, a lot of the sequence was filled in with GenBank info because the source RNA was largely degraded. As you probably are aware, ssRNA is very prone to degradation. So homology and extrapolated conclusions are larely exaggerated. This makes me question the source and accuracy of the other viruses as well. Not to mention statistics, probability, and evolutionary fitness of introduced viruses...

In my opinion this is just another scare tactic to keep the public occupied and most scientists are not beneath whoring out opinions on TV if it will get academia more funding. NIH funding has been cut dramatically and times are tough. My school slutted itself out during the Anthrax scare and CJ Peters went on CNN representing the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases ( which was formed less than 24 hours after the first Anthrax incident. And they received quite a bit of funding too because they capitalized quickly on the public fear - it's all about perception.

Almost everyone with credentials interviewed on TV with an ounce of credibility has touched on how it might/probably will not/could happen because they know it won't. The academic $$ agenda seems to override unbiased presentation. Unfortunately, TV has no peer review.

We are overdue for a pandemic but the one we get, I would bet, will NOT be the avian kind.

The Boy said...

drknow's comment reminds me of another kind of whore that is prevalent today: the doctors and scientists who sell themselves to the drug companies, irrespective of the drugs efficacy, safety, and of course, its unknown long-term effects.

The FDA's fast-track is indeed a fast-track outta here.

Sven said...

"In my opinion this is just another scare tactic to keep the public occupied and most scientists are not beneath whoring out opinions on TV if it will get academia more funding."

Silly me, I should have known it was all part of a vast left-wing conspiracy propogated but the academic elite and the ultra liberal media. In fact the whole scandal is probably the fault of Bill Clinton and Dan Rather.