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Vital bogeymen

MagazineJanuary 2006 (Vol. 16 Issue 10)Vital bogeymen

Viruses are like a Men in Black alien - a master of disguise able to morph the protein molecules of its surface appearance seemingly at will

Viruses are like a Men in Black alien - a master of disguise able to morph the protein molecules of its surface appearance seemingly at will. In the midst of single epidemics, such as the swine flu epidemic of 1918, a virus can already make this 'antigenic drift'. With one nearly imperceptible mutation in the viral population, nature drives its stake in the ground once more, reclaiming its primacy over man. Scientists are sent scurrying back to their labs.

If there's one thing that will get all of us - scientists and ordinary people alike - to do stupid, irrational things, it's epidemic fever. The latest possible epidemic is avian flu. As our cover story explains, the World Health Organization is predicting that 7.4 million of us will fall victim to the H5N1 virus, once it decides to leave birds behind and head towards us humans.

As an exercise in preparedness, the US government forked out billions of dollars to buy in 20 million doses of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), one of the world's four flu vaccines. Many in the developed world are following suit.

However, the US already knows that this is an exercise in futility. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has publicly stated that it doesn't have anything in its arsenal at this time to protect people from H5N1.

Indeed, the flu shots are worse than useless. Japan has already reported that eight people have died - not from the virus, but from the avian flu jab itself.

But our leaders are not the only dumb ones here. In the grip of epidemic hysteria, we the public will line up to take this dangerous and ineffective medicine - anything to keep the bogeyman from the door.

A near-identical situation arose with the 1976 swine-flu outbreak. The American government predicted an epidemic of this flu after the strain supposedly jumped species in a single outbreak in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Scientists found similarities in genotype with the swine-flu strain responsible for the 1918 epidemic and panicked. A vaccine was hurriedly created and, at the request of their President, millions of Americans lined up for their jab. The epidemic never arrived, but at least 25 people died, and 500 others were left paralysed with a polio-like paralysis from this preemptive strike.

In WDDTY's 16-year lifetime alone, we've heard of a number of microbial bogeymen: two predicted measles epidemics; mad cow disease; SARS; and meningitis C. All were false alarms. In none of these scares did masses of people die. However, in the case of measles and meningitis C, the entire population of British children was given ineffective or largely untried vaccines, which caused untold paralysis, damage and death.

Governments and scientists tend to be one-dimensional in their response to microbial threat. It never occurs to them to think laterally, and to examine all the environmental, dietary and emotional factors in populations then and today that succumb to disease.

Viruses surround us and always will. We will never be able to create medical weaponry clever enough to exterminate them.

The only way to beat the viral bogeyman is to stop giving him a grip on our imaginations.

Lynne McTaggart

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