The Null Device

Viral asteroid on a collision course with humanity

An expert on virology looks at the potential of the bird flu. Extrapolated from mortality rates and 1918 influenza statistics, it could kill one billion people; then again, it might not.
Scientists now estimate that the 1918 pandemic may have killed 40 to 100 million people worldwide. If you take into account the current world population, a direct extrapolation gives you 325 million deaths. If that's not sufficiently scary, there's more. Epidemiologists estimate the 1918 virus killed 2.5% of those infected. But we know that GenZ kills 70% of the people it infects. In other words, the true worst-case scenario based on 1918 could be 1 billion deaths worldwide. This is what Davis means by the monster at our door and why he believes scientists, and the press, are right to sound the alarm.

1 billion fatalities worldwide would be a 1/6 of the Earth's population. Which is a fatality rate comparable to the Black Death or the Great Plague. The social, political and economic ramifications of a loss of 1 billion people would be profound.

Then again, it may never happen. Flu is one of the deadliest pathogens in nature's arsenal, but is also one of the sloppiest. Like all viruses, every time it replicates it makes mistakes, some of which may render it less infective. That is the conundrum of H5N1. It could be a huge threat to the human race or none at all.
Of course, flu is also governed by natural selection; less infectious strains compete with more infectious ones, and you can imagine which one would spread more rapidly and crowd the others out of the gene pool. Then again, a virus that is highly contagious but not fatal would have an advantage in reproductive opportunity over one that kills its victims rapidly. (Though causing its victims to melt and splatter infected blood everywhere, as H5N1 does to chickens (though not yet humans) is also an effective strategy.)

Anyway, while it's too early for mass we're-all-going-to-die-I'm-a-teapot hysteria (not that it would help much, as there's not much one can do other than minimising one's exposure), claiming that H5N1 is nothing to be worried about and that life will go on as always (see also: global warming, peak oil) seems foolhardy.

There are 4 comments on "Viral asteroid on a collision course with humanity":

Posted by: El Bizarro http://bizarro.typepad.com Mon Oct 17 18:37:13 2005

I disagree and repeat my earlier assertion that this is a combination of a crap media beat-up and the skanky hand of big pharma. You can pretty much find as much expert opinion in favour as against the possibility that H5N1 is going to be the next global pandemic. I just wish people would stop comparing it with the Spanish Flu - the conditions today have nothing in common with post World War 1 Europe. Nothing, not a sausage.

What really gets my goat though is when people start blabbering on about how the government should be inoculating and hoarding vaccines. There is _no_ vaccine for H5N1 and in any case, vaccinations have only shown to reduce the severity of infection, not the infection itself.

In fact, the last two experts I've seen on BBC World have poopooed the scaremongering and suggested that more harm might be done by everybody getting so hot under the collar about the disease than the virus itself. One of the experts was from the WHO, the agency everybody seems to like quoting but don't seem to

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Tue Oct 18 08:51:01 2005

OTOH, the Spanish Flu had a fatality rate of 2-5%. H5N1 has a fatality rate of 50-70%. Also, unlike in 1918, we now have widespread air travel and a highly globalised just-in-time economy dependent on such; if H5N1 mutates into a human-contagious virus, it'll spread across the world before anyone has time to do anything.

Posted by: x http:// Fri Oct 21 02:09:10 2005

The majority of flu deaths during the Spanish Flu pandemic were caused by pneumonia related complications. Provided our health care systems can cope with the influx of patients, Western medicine is well equipped to deal with such complications.

Two other significant factors work to distinguish a potential avian flu pandemic from the Spanish Flu pandemic: firstly, the issue of nutrition in modern western countries, and secondly, the fact that we haven't just come out of a bloody and protracted war and it's associated hardship.

Even the WHO, who are notoriously alarmist when it comes to their predictions, are careful to point out that the worst case scenario is less likely than unlikely. Couple that with the fact that you and I live in western countries and take into account your age (mortality rates in the 20-40 group during the Spanish flu pandemic are irrelevant when you consider the demographic groups who were participants in aforementioned war) and YOUR chances of dying of avian flu are very slim in

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Fri Oct 21 08:45:25 2005

Though, AFAIK, the pneumonia question is irrelevant because H5N1 does not kill by pneumonia but by rapidly destroying lung tissue.

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