[FoRK] [TNR] Chicken Little: We'll survive the bird flu

J. Andrew Rogers andrew
Thu Oct 6 00:23:27 PDT 2005

On 10/5/05 11:26 PM, "Gordon Mohr" <gojomofork at xavvy.com> wrote:
> With recent bird flu scare stories, I've been toying with a
> theory:
> Why has it been so long since a pandemic at the scale of the
> 1918-1919 Spanish flu? We're more densely packed than ever, and
> international air travel and commerce could carry a deadly
> disease much farther, much faster than ever before.

There is one often overlooked factor when analyzing the death toll of the
1918 epidemic that can explain a lot.  While no good records exist from that
time due to the primitive state of medical science, it is widely believed
based on what we do know that more than half of all people that died were
almost certainly killed by secondary bacterial infections rather than
influenza itself.

More curiously, there is significant evidence that there was a particular
symbiotic infectious bacterium that spread with the virus that actually did
most of the damage above and beyond what one would expect from your typical
nasty influenza strain.  Absent that co-evolution and propagation of
bacteria and virus, 1918 might have been a forgettable flu year.

The argument is then that the development of antibiotics has suppressed
anything that we would really recognize as a deadly influenza pandemic, most
of the damage in such pandemics being caused by bacterium that we now have
the ability to control.  A nasty strain of influenza is bad and will kill a
lot of people, but humans have reasonable amounts of resistance to it as a
population on large scales.  Lacking an effective cocktail of microscopic
critters, I doubt we'll see something quite like 1918 again from influenza.


J. Andrew Rogers

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