Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Great Pandemic

The threat of Avian Flu's been around for a year or two now and it seems, all of a sudden, it's becoming a very serious thing indeed. Is it going to be a repeat of the post-WW1 Spanish Flu epidemic? Or will it be reminiscent of the great SARS scare of a couple of years ago (ie prophets foretelling a doom which never came)?

On the basis of some recent observations I've decided it might be wise to take a few precautions. When you hear the local radio station, that doubles as the Civil Defence emergency broadcast network, is developing contingency plans to keep itself on the air one develops certain concerns for self preservation. Also when the local DHB virologist starts saying things like "it's a matter of when, not if, it gets here" it's time to start worrying. When he's also a well regarded expert who works for the World Health Organisation it feels like it's time to be seriously scared. The plus at the moment is that while the virus can pass from animal to human, it seems it can't pass from human to human. Though how long it'll be before there's an antigenic shift is anyone's guess.

You see the kicker with these types of epidemics is it's hard to tell who is most at risk. Generally normal flu viruses will infect between 5 to 15 percent of a population and it's the old, the young, and the chronically ill that are vulnerable. While SARS never had those sort of infection rates it did have a mortality rate of around 3 percent. On the face of it that may not sound like much, but if everyone in New Zealand had been infected with SARS then it would have resulted in over 100,000 deaths. That would have been the worst disaster in our country's history. Historically the most recent comparison for us to look at, as far as western societies are concerned, is the Spanish Flu which had a mortality rate of 2.5 percent. It was pretty indiscriminate and seemingly healthy people dropped like flies. But if this column in the Washington Post is right then human to human transmission of the Avian Flu will be to Spanish Flu what a nuclear weapon is compared to a lit match.

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