The biggest public health event of 2005 was probably the non-mutation of bird flu, a hyper-lethal form of influenza scientists call H5N1. Sixty percent of the humans who caught this virus died, but the good news was, few people caught it.
Public health officials that I spoke to at the time were, to put it bluntly, scared shitless by the thought of what might happen if H5N1 became more infectious, spreading easily between humans.
When H5N1 didn't become the long-feared global pandemic, I caught a little flack from people who thought the attention to bird flu was fear-mongering. I don't mind that criticism: America was utterly unprepared for an influenza pandemic four years ago, and H5N1 was a wake-up call for public health and emergency officials.
The good news is, we're better prepared now, and I'm relieved to have an administration that's on speaking terms with scientists.
The important points to follow:
- CDC scientists have fully sequenced the virus, and they can tell from its genetic markers that this one is a mutant with bits from pigs, humans and birds.
- Because it's new, there is no residual immunity to this variant in the human population.
- Consequently, it's not a surprise that one of the U.S. cases was a person who received this year's flu vaccine.
- It's being transmitted by humans in a way that everyone feared H5N1 would spread in 2004-06.
- It's killed 60 people in Mexico, and they're all adults. Seasonal influenza kills the very young, the very old and the generally sick. Pandemic flus tend to kill healthy adults
- Here's why: It isn't the virus that kills you with a new flu virus, but the body's freakout over-reaction to it. The stronger your immune system, the greater the risk.
- Yes, that's ironic.
Nobody is calling this a pandemic yet. And I'm not about to panic. But if you've been reading the blog Effect Measure over the years, you've maybe noticed that the lead writer, Revere, gets pretty damn serious every now and again. And Revere is taking this seriously.
So I'm paying attention to this story, and I encourage you to do so as well. If it's going to be really bad, you will likely see the story develop rapidly, so pay attention to the pace of announcements.
If you start to feel panicky, remember this: We have pandemic emergency plans today we didn't have in 2005. We have stockpiles of Tamiiflu (which, thank goodness, it appears has some power over this strain), and importantly, we've expanded the infrastructure we'll need to make vaccine (a slow and expensive process). I'm not sure how far we've gotten, but I know it's a better place than the completely vulnerable spot we were in back then.
The Great Influenza of 1918-19 killed 20 to 40 million people, infected 20 percent of the world's population, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. We're in a better spot today, but it's always wise to respect nature. A virus is part of that natural system, and we're likely overdue for a pandemic. So stay sharp.