In the fall of the year 1918, a bad and terrible flu swept over the planet killing more people in America than were killed in the last century of warfare combined. As many as 50 million worldwide died horrible deaths as they either slowly drowned from fluids that filled their lungs or from other complications. Yes, influenza can and has enacted terrible suffering worldwide; a scenario continues to this day.
In America alone, the CDC has estimated that over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people. But, that’s not the scary part!
Not counting the pandemic outbreak of the Swine flu, it’s now been over forty years since the world has seen a novel or new version of the flu. Fortunately, the influenza type Swine Flu (type A H1N1) was not very serious, but on a more ominous note it was highly contagious. In just three weeks, after first appearing in Mexico, the Swine Flu was seen in 20 countries on five continents! After just the first year, it has been estimated that 1 in 7 people have been exposed. And, even though this flu was relatively mild, it still managed to kill a lot of people. One study estimated that ‘globally there were 201,200 respiratory deaths (range 105,700—395,600) with an additional 83,300 cardiovascular deaths (46,000—179,900) associated with 2009 pandemic influenza A H1N1. 80% of the respiratory and cardiovascular deaths were in people younger than 65 years and 51% occurred in Southeast Asia and Africa.’ So, its apparent that even a mild version of the flu can result in very high mortality and morbidity rates, if it also happens to be highly infectious!
Now consider the so-call Bird Flu or as it’s most scientifically known, Type A H5N1. This flu is a true killer, killing as many as 50% of the people who contract it! That’s why it’s also referred to a HPAI which stands for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.
Thankfully, HPAI does not spread very easily to humans…at least not yet. Recent studies have indicated that the virus is contained mostly to birds at this time. However, they’ve also indicated that this particular version may be just a few mutations (or genetic tweaks) away from becoming an airborne Fluageddon! (A situation that could develop if it manages to gain the contagiousness of the Swine flu while retaining its high level of pathogenicity)!
Such a flu, should it be let loose on the world, would make the movie Contagion seem like a walk in the park! Imagine catching a ‘cold’ where you had only a fifty-fifty chance of survival! Imagine a ‘cold’ so infectious that tens of millions came down with it all in a short time. Emergency services, hospitals and clinic would be almost instantly overwhelmed. Key personnel who maintain essential services like gasoline, electricity and water might easily abandon their posts setting up instances of widespread outages that would only fuel a growing panic. Such a dastardly flu could easily topple governments and start wars all across the globe….
But, what are the chances of this ever happening, you might well ask? I don’t think anyone does, but I’ll tell you this! The World Health Organization along with the CDC are growing increasingly uneasy as time goes on. One article, How Worried Should We Be’ published in Nature describes some of the reasons behind their concern.