The Times of London reports of the spread from the east of of Russia towards its west end of the Avian bird flu. No human deaths have been connected to the virus in Russia, but if you are saying “So what, I don’t each chicken anyway,” you will want to read –very slowly, with a pen– then go immediately to Laurie Garrett’s “The Next Pandemic,” from the new special issue of Foreign Affairs. The magazine generously made much of the crucial information available free of charge. Key excerpts from the Garrett piece mentioned (she has another in the package):
Scientists have long forecast the appearance of an influenza virus capable of infecting 40 percent of the world’s human population and killing unimaginable numbers. Recently, a new strain, H5N1 avian influenza, has shown all the earmarks of becoming that disease. Until now, it has largely been confined to certain bird species, but that may be changing.
The havoc such a disease could wreak is commonly compared to the devastation of the 1918-19 Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people in 18 months. But avian flu is far more dangerous. It kills 100 percent of the domesticated chickens it infects, and among humans the disease is also lethal: as of May 1, about 109 people were known to have contracted it, and it killed 54 percent (although this statistic does not include any milder cases that may have gone unreported). Since it first appeared in southern China in 1997, the virus has mutated, becoming heartier and deadlier and killing a wider range of species. According to the March 2005 National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine flu report, the “current ongoing epidemic of H5N1 avian influenza in Asia is unprecedented in its scale, in its spread, and in the economic losses it has caused.”
In short, doom may loom.
“[D]oom may loom,” is not somtething one expects tolead off the lead article in staid old and usually ponderous Foreign Affairs.
The scarcity of flu vaccine, although a serious problem, is actually of little relevance to most of the world. Even if pharmaceutical companies managed to produce enough effective vaccine in time to save some privileged lives in Europe, North America, Japan, and a few other wealthy nations, more than six billion people in developing countries would go unvaccinated. Stockpiles of Tamiflu and other anti-influenza drugs would also do nothing for those six billion, at least 30 percent of whom — and possibly half — would likely get infected in such a pandemic.
In the event of a modern pandemic, the U.S. Department of Defense, with the lessons of World War I in mind, would undoubtedly insist that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan be given top access to vaccines and antiflu drugs. About 170,000 U.S. forces are currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, while 200,000 more are permanently based elsewhere overseas. All of them would potentially be in danger: in late March, for example, North Korea conceded it was suffering a large-scale H7N1 outbreak — taking place within miles of some 41,000 U.S. military forces. It is impossible to predict how such a pandemic influenza would affect U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, or any other place.
Armed forces throughout the world would face similar issues. Most would no doubt pressure their governments for preferential access to vaccine and medications. In addition, more than a quarter of some African armies and police forces are HIV positive, perhaps making them especially vulnerable to influenza’s lethal impact. Social instability resulting from troop and police losses there would likely be particularly acute.
Such a devastating disease would clearly have profound implications for international relations and the global economy. With death tolls rising, vaccines and drugs in short supply, and the potential for the virus to spread further, governments would feel obliged to take drastic measures that could inhibit travel, limit worldwide trade, and alienate their neighbors. In fact, the Z+ virus has already demonstrated its disruptive potential on a limited scale. In July 2004, for example, when the Z+ strain reemerged in Vietnam after a three-month hiatus, officials in the northern province of Bac Giang charged that Chinese smugglers were selling old and sickly birds in Vietnamese markets — where more than ten tons of chickens are smuggled daily. Chinese authorities in charge of policing their side of the porous border, more than 1,000 kilometers long, countered that it was impossible to inspect all the shipments. Such conflicts are now limited to the movement of livestock, but if a pandemic develops they could well escalate to a ban on trade and human movement.
Read the whole thing. And then the other articles.