There's nothing modern medicine loves more than an epidemic. A big, scary infectious disease confirms the basic belief system that lies at the heart of all medicine: that viruses and bacteria are the root of most diseases of modern man. They also provide a rationale to set in motion the entire machinery of high-tech doctoring - the tests and hospital gadgetry, the dizzying race to isolate the bug and find a treatment, and the ultimate moneyspinner for drug companies: the development of a new vaccine.
Now that the Iraqi war is over, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus has gripped the headlines as the next greatest threat to the human race after weapons of mass destruction. N95 surgical masks are being handed out by the Red Cross in Canada. The Internet is enjoying a run on respirator masks to protect not only against SARS, but any biological agents like anthrax lobbed over from the Middle East. Canada and the US have unleashed a largely untested (and ineffective) antiviral drug as the only way to stop the epidemic that's just around the corner.
Theories abound as to the cause of this strange new virus. Some scientists believe that SARS evolved from an animal virus that has jumped ship from animal to man. Others blame it on researchers toying with the genes of viral strains and inadvertently producing a Frankenstein monster. The Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory suggests that SARS may be a mutant of the measles or mumps virus. Still others point to the low, chronic toxicity of food prepared with canola oil. A Russian scientist has even opined that SARS is the latest in chemical weaponry - in effect, Saddam's last hurrah.
But before we all rush out to order our respirator masks, it's worth examining the size of the threat. SARS is a new mutant strain of coronavirus similar to that of the common cold. To date, fewer than 3000 cases of SARS have been reported to the World Health Organization around the world, with 119 deaths. According to the WHO, 80-90 per cent of those who contract this new bug survive. SARS has a mortality rate of only 4 per cent - a rate similar to pneumonia. Even in Hong Kong, only 15 per cent of sufferers have required intensive care. The vast majority of deaths are among the elderly (the median age is 70) and those who have compromised immune systems.
In contrast, every year, the latest strain of flu causes 3-5 million cases of severe illness worldwide and up to a half-million deaths, with a mortality rate of 8-10 per cent. In Canada, 75,000 people are hospitalised and 6000-7000 people die of flu or pneumonia each year. As one sober journalist noted, if you live in Canada, you are twice as likely to die getting struck by lightning than by SARS.
Although conventional medicine can't treat SARS, alternative medicine can. These viruses all respond to high-dose vitamin C (J Appl Nutr, 1971; Winter) or vitamin A, lysine or ultraviolet therapy (Int J Biosoc Med Res, 1996; 14: 115-32). The herbs Rosa nutkana and Amelanchier alnifolia, both members of the Rosaceae family, can inhibit cell death caused by bovine coronavirus infection (J Ethnopharmacol, 1995; 49: 101-10).
The only group that loves an epidemic more than medicine is government. The threat of SARS enables political authorities to remove civil liberties, enforce quarantines, stoke up a climate of fear and create the need for conventional medicine. SARS is another political and medical trick to keep us all in line.