Some where in a nameless village of Vietnam, a girl dies off and suddenly there is world wide alarms, similar deaths being accounted, scientists settle down full fledged in research trying to crack down the traffic of diseases between man and animals. Why - Because, the girl died of flu.
From the labs
For human flu and avian flu (bird flu) to mix up, they should infect the same animal. The suspect is pigs for they can get human flu from the farmer and avian flu from the birds (especially ducks) of the same farm. Thus in 1957 and 1968 pandemics, human and avian flu viruses mixed yielding a hybrid which killed 2 million people around the globe. Strangely though, in 1918 something different happened. The flu virus was not a hybrid; its genetic pattern resembles very much that of an avian flu virus without a single sharing of human viral genes. Today H5N1 is doing the same thing. Scientists fearfully believe the present plight where H5N1 virus causes deaths only in tens instead of tens of millions is only tentative.
Anatomy of H5N1
In Hong Kong, a rich country could mass slaughter twice and disinfect the poultry frequently keeping the virus out of bounds.But in Vietnam, a poorer neighbor, mass slaughter only left the spread unabated. The Vietnam government suffers due to inefficiency, poverty and tradition to bring things under control.In Thailand a comparatively richer nation, slaughters only the infected poultry. But there duck herders traditionally drive flocks from field to field to eat the leftover rice - a practice that can efficiently spread the disease. In addition, with Laos, Cambodia as its neighbors any measure remains futile.
Will we win?
With humans leaping distances faster with newer technologies, so does flu. In 1968 it took a year to spread around the earth, now it would take only as much as half the time. It is calculated that, even with a vaccine ready at hand, only at the 100th day of outbreak it could be distributed. But as of now (with no vaccine), a vaccine would be invented only on the 250th day. When could we distribute it?
Assuming somebody somewhere in a village gets infected and sparks an outbreak; Public Health Officials would be able to flood antiviral drugs treating hundreds of thousands of patients, if only the virus spreads too slowly in the beginning. But the sickening truth is, Asia lacks much of the necessary infrastructure.If, as it may seem, Asia fails in controlling flu, the whole world would get infected in less than a few months. Richer countries prepare Tami flu (a medicine believed to protect against H5N1). UK prepares it for curing 15 million (a quarter of its population), France almost for its entire population. But USA believes in a vaccine hence produces only for 2.3 million against its strength of 300 million.
But no one knows if H5N1 is the real threat or just a gimmick. Several other flu viruses have infected recently but nothing is as deadly as H5N1. Researchers at CDC Netherlands performing genetic analysis say the virus could either mutate into a virulent form or into an innocuous one.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Bibliography : National Geographic, October 2005.