It’s not the flu

When in London sometime I pass nearby St Mary's Hospital I look at the blue plaque quietly commemorating Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. This article is dedicated to the memory of this saviour of mankind. This article is also attributed to the sad memory of this dying child watched by the waiting vulture. Our conscience need to think beyond our own welfare.

PARIS — Let's not become a huge living mass of hypocandriacs. We live in a scaremongering sensationalist culture. It is not the Avian flu or Sars but rather poverty that is killing mankind, A child still dies of hunger every five seconds, eight years on from a pledge to halve the world's hungry by 2015. Today's headlines regularly highlight new outbreaks of disease around the world; the death of a duck in India gets more coverage than the death of a hungry child. Mankind has lost its bearing; the drunkenness of advancement and growth has made us insensitive to the real challenges. We make wrong comparisons developing self serving disaster patterns and expect pandemic as real threats in total disregard to the huge monumental growth of preventive and curative medicine since the turn of the century.

In the 19th century, scientists discovered that micro organisms were to blame for killer diseases like cholera and tuberculosis, and officials launched public health efforts to provide clean water supplies and waste-disposal systems. By 1900, the incidence of many infectious diseases had declined, but pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhoea and enteritis were still the top three causes of death and accounted for one-third of all deaths. Today, the top three causes of death are heart disease, cancer, and stroke, and 4.5 percent of deaths are attributable to pneumonia, influenza, and HIV.

The introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s provided a huge boost in the battle against infections; Antibiotics saved the lives of people with previously incurable illnesses like streptococcal infections and gonorrhoea. More recently, antiviral drugs have led to breakthroughs in the treatment of HIV and other diseases. We all know that in the last half of the 20th Century, deaths from infectious diseases greatly decreased, partly due to the discovery of antibiotics. Visualizing a future without cancer or AIDS is difficult, but 100 years ago it was probably just as hard for health workers to fathom wiping out polio or effectively treating bacterial infections. Yet those are just a few of the many miraculous advances in human health and safety in the 20th century. Since 1900, average life expectancy in the United States has increased from 40 to 76.7.

If one starts testing wild ducks and goose for viruses, one will definitely find some. These ducks and wild birds have lived with flu and viruses since time immemorial, we are here with our longevities that we ever enjoyed as humans race and huge increase in migratory populations of birds as a result of natural selection of species that can survive that change the best. Look at the American national symbol, the bald eagle, it has been rescued from the brink of extinction and from the status of endangered it is now listed as threatened, soon it is expected that it will be delisted. Avian flu threat amongst human beings would only erupt if there is a massive flu amongst birds and the bird migratory patterns may see a clear decline.

It is the rather modern threats skyscrapers and other buildings; communication towers; and wind power generators as well as electric power lines and poles and a boom in the domesticated cat population that may be causing the deaths of more than a billion birds a year and that is a conservative estimate. The sad part is that many of these bird mortalities are preventable. And we should do whatever it takes to mitigate them. We must take responsibility for ensuring their survival. The birds have not so far shown any signs of Avian flu rather if any threat exists it is more due to our own advancement.

Now that man has time and money to run tests on wild goose and ducks some results do raise a lot of sensations and heat. It is no more wastage of limited assets, finding an adversary is a national past time for many an over funded scientists. Vigilance based on risk reward and preparedness is one thing but overkill is becoming part of our daily lives. Sars and Avian flu are two different kinds of threats and Let's look at them closely. Sars is a serious respiratory virus, which has killed nearly 800 people worldwide in the months following its emergence since November 2002.

SARS is caused by a coronavirus similar to one of the types of virus that causes the common cold, whereas Avian flu is caused by an influenza virus. However, both viruses originally occurred in animals and spread to humans. Avian, or otherwise known as H5N1, is extra scary because it resembles the most infamous flu virus of all time, the 1918 Spanish flu strain, the one that infected half the world's population, killing more than 40 million people. For years, the Spanish flu virus was a mystery until scientists dug through old U.S. army autopsy samples and collected enough of the virus to genetically reconstruct it. What they found was an avian flu that has a lot in common with today's H5N1. An infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota says, “H5N1 is very similar to, if not a kissing cousin to, the H1N1 virus that we saw in 1918. Not only does it act the same way with the kind of immune response it elicits, it is a lethal killer in animals and humans.”

So far the deaths have been far and few amongst the people closely related with business of raising birds and medical response is accessible. All of the human cases have been in Southeast Asia. Out of 117 known victims, 60 have died. That's a mortality rate of 50 per cent. The treatment is available if pandemic crosses the threshold from birds to humans in a marked way. Tamiflu can be used two ways, as a treatment when someone is sick with the flu and as a preventive to keep one from getting infected in the first place. In a perfect world, we'd all have enough Tamiflu to take one pill every day if the pandemic virus is circulating in our region.

Haunted by the memories of the ghosts of the devastating 1918 Spanish flu, first SARS and now Avian flu are being flaunted as the new ŒY2K' millennium bug! A reference to the genetic similarity of the virus that killed millions in 1918 is in total disregard to two things one the activity of antibiotics was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1920's and second the Hygiene and disease prevention efforts intensified in the early 1900s, including chlorination of drinking water. Mankind faced Spanish flu without antibiotic, penicillin was not yet discovered! A century before Ebola, SARS, or avian flu began making headlines; another invisible killer was carving a swath of death and fear across the globe- the plague. Now nearly eradicated to only 2000-3000 cases a year, Modern antibiotics are effective treatments for Plague and helped eradicate Plague.

Plague, which was originally called “the Great Mortality” or simply “the Pestilence” and later called “the Black Death”, is believed to have first surfaced in China in the early 1340's. From there it spread along trade routes to India, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Word of this horrible disease reached Europe before the disease arrived in Italy in 1347. It took a staggering toll in the Italian peninsula and then began a sweep through Europe. In 1348 it reached England and Russia in 1351. The people of the middle ages suffered tremendously with death tolls between 20% and 40% in their cities and communities. In some areas, as many as 60% and higher died, often forcing people to abandon their towns and villages.

Adding to the misery of these kinds of losses was the mystery as to the cause of the almost certain death in those who contracted Plague. Common beliefs about Plague and its origin varied. Some said it crept out of cracks in the earth left by earthquakes. Others said it was a judgment of God. And some blamed other groups of people for conspiring and poisoning their wells. Plague still exists today, but the world has never seen such devastation since modern medicine and antibiotics have come on the scene. In earlier times, before the advent of modern-day, widely available medical treatment, the death rate associated with bubonic plague was about 50%.

Despite the virulence of plague, the associated death rate has now been greatly reduced as the result of advances in medical treatment, the public's enhanced health awareness, and earlier discovery and treatment of diseases. The threats to mankind from infectious disease pre 1920 and post 1920 represent altogether different trajectories. Polio is also on the verge of eradication. But prior to 1955, when the Salk poliovirus vaccine was introduced, there were more than 16,000 polio cases and 1,879 deaths reported a year in the United States. Introduction of the Salk vaccine galvanized national efforts to vaccinate all children against a full range of childhood diseases.

One recent virus and bug emanating from Silicon valley come to my mind as an example of overkill.Y2K bug when the clock ticked Jan 1, 2000, was suppose to lead major problems, the difference between 1 Jan 2000 and 31 Dec 1999 could be calculated as -100 years rather than 1 day. It was suspected that this could have destroyed the whole finance industry and even airplanes falling from the skies were reported possible. The bug not only existed in computer software but it also existed in the firmware being used in the computer hardware. This bug threatened all the major industries including utilities, banking, manufacturing, telecom, airlines.

The clock ticked, the turn a millennium was the greatest show fireworks and spectacular on earth mankind shall even observe. Banks worked fine, no major power outages were reported, airplanes still flew and the whole world went on with its normal life. But if the ballpark estimates for the overall costs of the Year 2000 problem are anywhere near true, that would strain even the most agile statistical intellect. The figure is quoted between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. That's more than the combined market capitalization of the top ten Fortune 500 companies, nearly twice the cost of the Vietnam War, or more than enough to fund ten Apollo space programs, adjusted for inflation.

The most expensive spin-control campaign in modern history emanated from Silicon Valley soon after that. The question raised was if all the money spent to trumpet Y2K crises really necessary? For years, businesses and governments had spent untold sums to warn of widespread chaos from the millennium bug. In turn, the dire predictions had driven companies, agencies, schools, corner stores, and ordinary citizens to collectively spend billions of dollars–some say trillions–in preparation for the impending Year 2000 disaster.

Testing blood of migratory ducks on a regular basis in the absence of resources would be profligacy and now with the development of knowledge and new found wealth and political sensitivity of failing to respond to warnings, democracies have become puppets in the hands of so called experts. A threat that could kill hundreds of millions, the deaths of 1918 Spanish flu is being made basis of these projections by insurance actuaries and WHO. Globally lot of resources are being spent on finding what kills a duck, far much more numbers of humans are dying of malnutrition and famine as drought returns to Africa not many are as bothered about that.

We have the state of art laboratories and huge amounts of funs for research and development of new threats from as varied a creature as monkey to duck, the politicians are afraid of their shadows, once warnings are issued, the government exchequers open their possessions troves to show their eagerness to prepare for threats that project disasters on fantasy inventions of numbers. Maybe it is our over eagerness to discover new threats that we are able to find new menace of mutations of viruses from lower species. If we spent equal resources on rats and cockroaches we may find some detriment coming out of those quarters too!

If there were ducks two million years ago and ape man were testing them we would have seen some similar results but duck flu would have not arrested our evolution like the plague or polio or smallpox did not. Today we are in a position to kill a fly with a hammer because we have ample resources. We totally ignore the real culprit, which is chronic poverty; a merciless killer operating every second.

Instead of wasting scarce resources disproportionately on imaginary diseases and pandemics like Sars Avian Flu let's concentrate on extreme poverty the biggest of disease that is eating the heart of the humanity out of existence. By 2000-2002, the number of chronically hungry in developing nations stood at 815 million, only nine million fewer than the estimate made a decade earlier.

A child still dies of hunger every five seconds, eight years on from a pledge to halve the world's hungry by 2015, a United Nations agency has said. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004 report says hunger and malnutrition cost about $30bn (£15.5bn) each year in direct medical expenses, with indirect costs costing billions more. The FAO estimates an annual funding increase of $24bn (£12.4bn) to reach the hunger target would be repaid almost five-fold in increased productivity and income.

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