Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Drawing First Blood

The niggling numbnut naysayers of the right wing often point to the "failed" avian flu epidemic as a sign that science doesn't always get it right, and that the dire warnings about global warming should be discounted for that fact alone.

Um. Not so fast, guys:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A mathematical analysis has confirmed that H5N1 avian influenza spread from person to person in Indonesia in April, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.

They said they had developed a tool to run quick tests on disease outbreaks to see if dangerous epidemics or pandemics may be developing.
Ah, you might say, statistical analysis is not a precise measuring tool.

Actually, it is. Statistical analyses were what helped pinpoint a plague outbreak in London (the first widespread use of statistics, by the way) to the drinking water (i.e. The Thames) and aided in taking steps necessary to prevent a further spread of the disease.

To continue with the article:
since 2003 it has infected 322 people and killed 195 of them.

Most have been infected directly by birds. But a few clusters of cases have been seen and officials worry most about the possibility that the virus has acquired the ability to pass easily and directly from one person to another. That would spark a pandemic.

Ira Longini and colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle looked at two clusters -- one in which eight family members died in Sumatra in 2006, and another in Turkey in which eight people were infected and four died.
The Turkey outbreak yielded insufficient data upon which to form a conclusion, but the Sumatra outbreak was clearly shown to be a human-to-human transmission.

Why is this important? The great fear of scientists regarding the avian flu is the mutation to a form that would infect mammals. Most scientists consider it a certainty that this will happen. It's already happened once in my lifetime (The Hong Kong flu was a type "A" influenza, meaning it was once avian and then mutated...I remember having that. It was not fun.)

Less than 100 years ago, an avian flu virus mutated and created the Spanish Flu. Original estimates were that between 40-50 million people worldwide died of this disease, but statisticians believe that number is off by 100%, and that the total was closer to 100 million, or roughly ten percent of the world's population. The discrepancy is attributed to more primitive medical diagnoses, because avian flu symptoms are so severe, the disease is often misdiagnosed as Ebola or Dengue fever.

Yea. You read that correctly. It's that nasty:
"One of the most striking of the complications was hemorrhage from mucous membranes, especially from the nose, stomach, and intestine. Bleeding from the ears and petechial hemorrhages in the skin also occurred." The majority of deaths were from bacterial pneumonia, a secondary infection caused by influenza, but the virus also killed people directly, causing massive hemorrhages and edema in the lung.
Too, because this was all happening at the tail end of World War I, it's likely that many of the war dead actually died of the flu, but were tallied as combat casualties.

So there's a lot of reason to be concerned about avian flu and a lot of reason to be thankful that so far, we've all been very lucky. It is, however, coming, and just because the conservative cretins pray the problem goes away, and then whistle past the graveyard when we've made it through yet another flu season without this deadly outbreak, doesn't mean it will not happen.

We need to find solutions and we need to recommit resources that have been allowed to drift away from this crisis. Thankfully, a Democratic Congress is in place, and might...might...have the foresight to do something before things get out of hand.

Given the current "It's better to apologize later than ask permission now" sentiment floating around DC, however, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Even if eventually, we all may have to.