Archive

Posts Tagged ‘pandemic’

Swine Flu: Smoking Pig or Sneezing Gun?

May 13, 2009 1 comment
Oink *cough* Oink!

Oink *cough* Oink!

In what appears to be the first mainstream admission that the Swine Flu might well be of human creation, Bloomberg reports on an Australian researcher (a plant virologist) who suspects that the infection may have arisen from a vaccination laboratory, by mistake of course:

[Emeritus Professor] Adrian Gibbs, 75, who collaborated on research that led to the development of Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu drug, said in an interview that he intends to publish a report suggesting the new strain may have accidentally evolved in eggs scientists use to grow viruses and drugmakers use to make vaccines. Gibbs said he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’s origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint.

A similar theory existed for Avian influenza. That is, that it leaked from a laboratory in China by mistake (of course), possibly from a biological weapons laboratory. For those out there who had some kind of notion that nobody was developing biological weapons anymore, then you ought to surf Google more!

Yes, this virus strain could be a case of mistaken release of a partially attenuated pathogen, but what, pray tell, are supposedly legitimate pharmaecutical companies doing with these unusual and, dare we suggest, practically off-limits viral RNA in their possession? Why did this virus start off in pigs in Mexico?

We discussed earlier how the theory that this virus is natural is an implausible one, that three viral strains (as originally reported) do not simply combine in vivo without leaving a very obvious train of precursor strains. We also discussed, jokingly, how the virus outbreak may have been no mistake (something that requires constant consideration, as there are many plausible motives). The facts are now beginning to fall into place, but this most intriguing of mysteries is still not close to being solved.

Swine flu has infected 5,251 people in 30 countries so far, killing 61, according to the WHO. Scientists are trying to determine whether the virus will mutate and become more deadly if it spreads to the Southern Hemisphere and back.

So far the mortality rate stands at 0.6%, which is nowhere near that of Spanish Flu, and is roughly equal to the annual death rate in Australia. That’s actually a lot of deaths, but still nothing to be particularly worried about. It needs to be borne in mind that most of the deaths occurred in Mexico, which does not have the same underlying health, demographics and climate as most of the developed world. Update: 17/5/09 – It is estimated that more than 100,000 infections have occurred in the U.S, and given the death rate so far.

If Dr. Gibbs is correct, which it appears he is, then it should be possible to find out exactly which laboratory produced the pathogen. Possible, of course, does not mean easy. Those working in biological research laboratories, especially those working with dangerous organisms, are in a particularly vulnerable situation. Not only do they need to be very careful how they handle the microbes, but they must take special care with the information they collect and be mindful as to how that information is likely to be used. No profession is without ethical dilemmas.

Bloomberg’s article goes on:

In addition, his research found the rate of genetic mutation in the new virus outpaced that of the most closely related viruses found in pigs, suggesting it evolved outside of swine, Gibbs said. Some scientists have speculated that the 1977 Russian flu, the most recent global outbreak, began when a virus escaped from a laboratory.

Gibbs said he has no evidence that the swine-derived virus was a deliberate, man-made product.

“I don’t think it could be a malignant thing,” he said. “It’s much more likely that some random thing has put these two viruses together.”

Well, everybody is innocent until proven guilty. It is also quite correct to say that this virus is unlikely to be a biological weapon, because its lethality is so low. Nonetheless, this virus has the potential to cause as much death and morbidity as did the Chernobyl reactor disaster of 1986 – an event that partly triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. Should the origins of this virus turn out to be one of an established superpower, or an emerging one, it could well spur some seizmic shifts on a political level.

Piggy Swine Flu and The Dreaded Lurgi

April 28, 2009 7 comments
Spike Milligan, Harry Seacombe, Peter Sellers

Conspiracy Theorists: Spike Milligan, Harry Seacombe, Peter Sellers

You dirty rotten swine flu!

It’s not even been a week and the Swine Flu epidemic/pandemic hysteria has already taken an unbelievable hold in the minds of people everywhere, from Mexico City, New Jersey and New York to London, Paris and Calcutta. The BBC reports:

“Containment is not a feasible operation” – Dr. Keiji Fukuda (WHO)

So now it’s time for everyone to run under a rock until the Dreaded Lurgi passes, because, of course, we’re all gonna die! Just over many many years and not all at once (but why spoil a good story with the truth). What is amazing is that a virus can affect people who have never been in contact with it, as Spike Milligan so cleverly observed:

Moriarty: …And now, my friend, to business. My name is Count Moriarty. Have you ever heard of Lurgi?
Seagoon: There’s no one of that name here
Moriarty: Sacristi Bombet! Listen to me while I tell you a tale. In 1296 on the Isle of Ewe
Seagoon: Where?
Moriarty: Isle of Ewe
Seagoon: I love you, too. Shall we dance?
Moriarty: I don’t wish to know that. On the Isle of Ewe the dreaded Lurgi struck. In six weeks, in cinq weeks mark you, Lurgi had destroyed {Silence Please} Lurgi had destroyed the entire population.
Seagoon: What a splendid story
Moriarty: Oui
Seagoon: Have you heard the story about the man who didn’t marry Rita Hayworth
Moriarty: Impossible
Seagoon {Snigger}
Moriarty: As I was saying, Lurgi, Lurgi could easily destroy the entire human race.
Eccles: Then I’m okay, fellers.

In the above quoted episode of the Goon Show, the Dreaded Lurgi strikes Britain, but, mysteriously, it was observed that none of the victims played in a brass band. Needless to say, the British parliament was advised that four million E Flat trombones, three million Euphoniums, and four million Saxophones…in all, fifty million brass band instruments should be purchased at once in order to save the nation. The thing was, though, that Count Moriarty just happened to be a brass instrument dealer and was ready to take orders in bulk. Soon enough, thousands of aircraft were in the air delivering vital instruments to Great Britain. In the end, however, it was revealed that there was no such thing as the Dreaded Lurgi.

Sadly, the World is not an episode of The Goon Show, but merely a cheap imitation. Swine Flu exists, of course, but it hasn’t reached Spanish Flu proportions yet, and it isn’t 1918 either. A vaccine against the organism is not yet available, but in a panic, the authorities will hand over samples of the virus to any company that claims it can come up with one. Baxter pharmaceuticals put their hand up first, claiming that they can achieve a result in as brief a period as two weeks. We’ll see who gets the contract.

Economic effects of even a sniff of a pandemic can be astronomical. It’s said that SARS (which was very much a Dreaded Lurgi that never eventuated) cost the Asian economy $40 Billion. Estimates of the cost of Swine Flu are given as $3 Trillion worldwide. That is $3,000,000,000,000.00 (about 8 Sydneys). Of course, it won’t really cost that much money, because at that point money is a meaningless measure of anything, even economies themselves.

The direct effects of the virus (perhaps in numbers of deaths) are likely to be much smaller per head of population than Spanish Flu, which was estimated to have affected 20% of individuals worldwide, with a mortality of 3% of the world’s population. India’s population sustained a loss of 5%. In Fiji, 14% died. In Australia, only 12,000 died. These are interesting statistics, and they reflect the underlying health of nations at the time. However, a worst case scenario of, say, 5% deaths globally from Swine Flu means a staggering figure of 300 million deaths (most of them in second and third world countries). That ought to make the depopulationists happy.

A bit of a Google search (just for fun) of Spanish Flu reveals hundreds of websites and blogs which claim that it was man-made, and there is a long history of distrust of (forced) vaccination programmes. Even stronger is the suspicion now that the Swine Flu could have also been non-accidental. Spanish Flu has been intensely studied recently, with attempts to recover its RNA, and claims of success in 2005. Since Swine Flu contains elements in common with the Spanish Flu virus, there is fertile ground for sensationalism and suspicion. Stranger things have happened in history, so the possibility of foul play cannot be ruled out. Sorry about the irresistible SARS pun, by the way.

So, as the death toll rises, as the fear spreads and the international flights get canceled, let’s pause for a moment to think about our own mortality. And then let us also pause and realize that the chance of dying of Swine Flu in Australia is at worst around 2 in a thousand (probably much less), given a full-blown epidemic, much less than the underlying death rate. Not as exciting as it could be, is it?

Never the less, if Swine Flu inspires people to think of how short life really is, that they should make friends with their Maker, go to Mass, go to Confession and be nice for a change, then at least something good might come of all this. Life is short. Hell is forever. Maybe that is why people are so worried.

See also: Swine Flu Got Legs

Swine Flu got Legs

April 25, 2009 1 comment

Swine Flu

Swine Flu

This could be the big one.

(See also: Swine Flu and the Dreaded Lurgi and Swine Flu Less Scary Than Expected)

Health alerts have spread through Australia’s government institutions, in particular hospitals, advising of the risk of Swine Flu. It affects young adults, has a high probability of mortality, and is described by the World Health Organization as an emergency having the potential to reach pandemic proportions rapidly. In Mexico, it is said that over 1000 people at the present time have been infected, of which over 60 (27/4/09 – now 80) have died – a fatality rate of (roughly) 6%. Schools, museums and other public gathering places have been closed to try to prevent further spread. The virus has already spread to California, Texas, with at least seven confirmed infections.

The number of fatalities outside of Mexico currently equals 1, a 23 month old in the US.

Specifically, the virus belongs to the H1N1 group of influenza A viruses. This particular strain is novel; its discovery occurred as recently as 2 days ago (23/4/2009). Its genetic profile is such that the conventional flu vaccines offered to hospital workers and the community are unlikely to offer protection. It is said to be sensitive to the drugs zanamivir (Relenza, owned by GSK) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu, owned by Roche). Supplies of this drug in Australia are probably adequate to manage the early stages of an outbreak, but clearly, in developing countries, this is definitely not the case.

The lethality of this infection is similar to that during the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1920) which had a mortality rate of 2 to 20%. It too was a subtype of the H1N1 influenza A virus.

One of the most common questions being asked by the public are about the presentation of the illness and how to avoid getting infected. In general, the symptoms and signs of the infection are nothing out of the ordinary. They include:

  1. All the usual flu symptoms, such as fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing (respiratory tract), sometimes runny nose and sore throat.
  2. Other body systems can also be involved, such the gut (nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea)

These are the same symptoms that can happen in pneumonia, the common cold, even urinary tract infection in some people. This is not very helpful, because it can now be expected that, very often, a person with even the slightest runny nose, or food poisoning or whatever, will think he or she has swine flu. The rule of thumb is, if you are more sick than your usual, see a doctor. If you have a reason to avoid being sick at all (such as being on drugs which decrease your immunity), see a doctor.

As for avoiding infection, well there are more myths than facts around. If you managed to avoid catching a cold over the last five years, then you are doing something right, but the fact is that most people are forced to go to public places, shop, go to school, work and so forth. Like every virus, the flu will have an incubation period (even if it’s just a couple of days) where a person is infected, is infectious, but is feeling perfectly well.

Of the few things that have been proven to work, careful and consistent hand washing after human contact, isolation of the sick, vaccines (by no means a panacea), and being otherwise healthy, well slept and well fed, are the best thing. If you are worried about dying, but smoke, drink too much, go to fast food restaurants and drive too fast, then fix those before you worry about the flu!

The coming weeks will reveal whether this virus manages to spread faster than the ability of researchers to design a vaccine in order to produce herd immunity, especially in major cities. In the meantime, governments around the world will be placing their institutions on alert for symptoms and putting in place treatment protocols and the like. There is no doubt that everybody will do whatever is feasible to curtail the spread of this organism.

There are oddities about this organism, however, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

The flu virus mutates promiscuously, and this strain is no exception: Officials said that, in addition to genetic material associated with North American swine flu, the strain has gene segments associated with European and Asian swine flu, North American avian flu and human flu.

Most surgical masks do not offer protection.

Most surgical masks do not offer protection.

Three strains in one! It’s not unreasonable to ask questions about just how probable (or improbable) such a mutation is in the wild. In laboratories, however, mixtures of multiple viral RNA fragments can be combined to yield a successful result. Biological weapons research has not ceased either, but has continued quietly out of the public limelight. We can expect to hear of many different explanations about this particular virus.

It is useful to keep an open mind about the outbreak. It is currently assumed that the virus is a natural occurrence. Indeed, there have been warnings about this for years now. The thing is, though, that warnings do not change the probabilities. Many people are rightly wondering whether the virus was engineered in a laboratory or is merely a coincidental mutation among a herd of pigs. If it is a man-made virus, then its release into the wild could represent the greatest act of mass murder in history. This question, therefore, is not to be shirked at and must be answered.

The influenza viruses, however, are known for their unstable genetics and rapid rate of mutation, hence the tendency for new strains to emerge each year, and even during a seasonal outbreak. It would be interesting to tease out the probabilities that this particular strain would have spontaneously emerged. Also, we can expect this outbreak, if it does spread as predicted, to rapidly mutate into multiple strains, making containment even more difficult.

On the topic of containment, it needs to be said that ordinary surgical masks do little to prevent the spread of influenza. It’s all just for show. During the first few minutes of wearing a surgical mask, the device performs to manufacturer specifications, but after that the mask is damp and warm and cannot offer the same protection. A paper mask cannot form a tight seal around the face so that air is always entrained on inhalation. If you are sneezed on, or are in contact with an infected person, you are going to get infected. Mask wearing is by and large a waste of time – as good as placebo. But people will do it anyway, of course.

Whatever its origins, this virus is already showing an ability to spread extremely rapidly. Within days we will know whether this is indeed the flu pandemic of the century.

Truth in Paradox – AIDS in Africa

April 11, 2009 4 comments
AIDS Patient

AIDS Patient

The AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa is said to currently afflict around 22 million people, which is roughly 5% of adults. This value is now lower than was previously quoted, yet it is by no means a sign of an improving situation. There are critics who cite many problems associated with the collection of statistics and their interpretation. Confounding factors such as selection bias (non-random sampling) and elements of corruption on the part of governments in order to obtain foreign aid have been identified. The lower values are probably truer values and show that in the past, the degree to which AIDS has affected Africa has been overstated. It’s still a pandemic. It’s still extremely big, but it means that tracking the progress of AIDS in Africa is proving to be very difficult and gathered information unreliable. It means that any claims to success on the part of the World Health Organization in combating AIDS through the distribution of condoms cannot be easily verified, since we really cannot trust the statistics, especially if the methods of data collection are changing.

It is on this background of unreliable, untrustworthy information on AIDS and HIV prevalence that Pope Benedict XVI and now Cardinal George Pell make claims that, paradoxically, condoms are making matters worse rather than better, through encouraging promiscuity among young adults. Cue the canned laughter from western media outlets.

The thing is, moral arguments aside, they might just be right.

First of all, the research that has been conducted on the efficacy of condom usage in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases has largely been conducted in the first world, where quality control procedures are excellent, the general health of adults is good and compliance rates are high. Under these circumstances there is no question that the spread of HIV (and other diseases) has been mitigated by the use of condoms. Companies and organizations advocating the use of condoms in the Third World wave their research papers at governments and tell then that the evidence is overwhelming. It sounds plausible and reasonable, all else being equal, but all else is not equal.

The patterns of sexual activity in Africa cannot be assumed to be the same as those in Western countries, yet people in the debate assume this none the less. The situation in Africa is very complex and it is difficult to exclude environmental factors such as changes in demographics, social habits and culture over time. War, extremes of climate, social upheaval, famine and terror inevitably affect things like the reliability of supply routes for condoms and peoples’ sexual behavior. Conducting good quality medical research in such an environment would be very difficult indeed. Results coming from studies in Third World countries cannot be considered to be of high reliability, as the degree of transparency and peer review is not equivalent to that in richer countries. Even some randomized, controlled trials in Western countries (on unrelated areas of medicine) have been shown to be completely fraudulent, making a mockery of the notion of “evidence based medicine” being the infallible guide to medical decision making.

Arguments against the use of condoms in Africa have included claims that the latex used in them is porous and permits the passage of intact virus through the membrane, or poor manufacturing and inadequate storage and transportation conditions resulting in failure of the device, and issues with compliance. These are all plausible, but they do not carry weight against the fact that, in Western countries, they do not seem to have a high failure rate at all and no class actions have been made against manufacturers for a spate of unexpected pregnancies (or HIV infections) due to failure of their product. It sometimes seems that, in this debate, once the Pope makes a pronouncement, the Catholics go out and try to find any conceivable defense of his views (not merely a moral one) to achieve compliance with Catholic teaching among Catholics (and others). They often go out and argue the case without having fully understood the contrary view. As such they have scored many an ‘own goal’ when the arguments backfire.

The AIDS problem in Africa is a behavioral and moral issue, as well as an epidemiological and medical one. Promiscuity, although a thing lauded in the First World in its music videos, movies, magazines and television programs, is the fundamental reason for the spread of sexually transmitted disease. It is the underlying cause. Secondary to this is that coexistent disease, such as malnutrition or pre-existing sexually transmitted infection, magnifies the risk of contracting or disseminating HIV. Condoms attempt to address the secondary problem. They require strict compliance in a subgroup of the population which is probably less compliant than the average.

Western AIDS campaign not addressing promiscuity

Western AIDS campaign not addressing promiscuity

Abstinence programs were hailed by fundamentalist Christians as the answer to the teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease problem in the USA, but have shown to make no significant difference to either. One reason is that there are much bigger, more effective “education programs” at work there which promote extramarital sexual activity. The media is an incredibly powerful social force in the First World. This is not the case in the poorer areas of Africa where AIDS is most prevalent. The population does not undergo the same sexualization from infancy that occurs in the West. Therefore the failure of education programs in Western countries cannot be used as an argument against a similar effort in Africa. It is not correct to assume that human sexual behavior is unmodifiable. It has certainly been possible to increase the sexual activity and decrease the age of first intercourse in the First World. Why would the opposite effect be unachievable in Africa?

The AIDS problem in Africa has not been solved by Western civilization because its industrialized, technologically advanced and, dare I say it, morally bankrupt culture is not compatible with life in Africa. The imposition of Western solutions on African culture is an obviously flawed idea, yet it is exactly what continues to occur. The rampant spread of HIV in Africa can be largely attributed to the displacement of working men. Foreign industry set itself up in the cities, attracting poverty stricken farming men to find work and food for their families in the cities. Their wives and children remained in the villages. Additionally, major social upheaval in the form of civil wars, the break-down of Apartheid in South Africa and massive population shifts due to famine have resulted in the disruption of the family unit on a massive scale. Many of these disasters were brought about by the direct (albeit covert) actions of Western powers. These events create situations which make promiscuity easy, stress levels high and the likelihood of compliance with any kind of behavioral intervention (including condoms) low.

It is no surprise that the AIDS problem is nowhere near an end in Africa. The “scientific” approach to the solution through medical aid has failed. Perhaps the Catholics were right. Staying with the one sexual partner (one’s spouse) and staying with one’s family costs nothing, requires no technology and makes a society strong. Families exist because they work, because over the eons they have allowed human beings to survive hardships which would otherwise have wiped them out. Encouraging this kind of responsible behavior should be at the forefront of every intervention in the African continent, regardless of who is carrying it out. This means that trends which favor the destruction of the family unit (such as industrialization) need to be curtailed or at the very least changed so that the family unit is guaranteed to remain intact.

The paradox may very well be true, that the exact opposite approach taken in First World to counter HIV/AIDS is the correct one for sub-Saharan Africa.