By David L. Brown
We have not written recently about avian flu, but you can bet we have been keeping an eye on this potential threat to humanity. Now, a story from Reuters (read it here) indicates that a recent mutation in the H5N1 virus responsible for the disease makes it possible for it to thrive in the upper respiratory tract of human beings. This is an ominous step toward making the so-called “bird flu” a large-scale threat to humankind. Here is an excerpt from the report:
The H5N1 bird flu virus has mutated to infect people more easily, although it still has not transformed into a pandemic strain, researchers said on Thursday.
The changes are worrying, said Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We have identified a specific change that could make bird flu grow in the upper respiratory tract of humans,” said Kawaoka, who led the study.
“The viruses that are circulating in Africa and Europe are the ones closest to becoming a human virus,” Kawaoka said.
So far the virus still cannot be easily be transmitted between people, but until now a major explanation for that fact has been its inability to grow except deep in the human lungs. Now that barrier has been breached.
How deadly could this influenza be if it should make the final step or steps to become easily transmitted between humans? Well, consider that the last major pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918-9, killed perhaps 50 to 100 million people, possibly more than the infamous Black Death. That pandemic, caused by the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, killed as few as 2 percent and certainly no more than 20 percent of those infected.
Now consider that of the 329 people known to have been infected with H5N1 by contact with birds since the avian flu appeared in 2005, 201 have died. That is a chilling 61 percent mortality rate.
Dr. Kawaoka told Reuters: “I don’t like to scare the public, because they cannot do very much. But at the same time it is important to the scientific community to understand what is happening.”
The new mutation has made the virus more potentially dangerous by adapting to a cooler environment. According to the Reuters report, birds have body temperatures in the range of 106 degrees F, much warmer than the temperatures in the human nose and throat, where flu viruses usually enter when being spread from others by sneezing or contact. Dr. Kawaoka explained that “usually the bird flu doesn’t grow well in the nose or throat of humans.” The new mutation allows H5N1 to live well in the cooler temperatures of the human upper respiratory tract.
While scientists have a general idea of what mutations would give avian flu the ability to be easily transmitted between humans, it is clear that this latest step is not the final one since no sudden increase in human cases has been seen. However, we are one step closer to what could be a medical nightmare. In our time when rapid air transport could spread a viral pandemic to every corner of the planet in a matter of hours, this is a potential disaster of immense proportions. If the virus does become contagious between humans, and if it maintains its high mortality rate, deaths in the hundreds of millions of even a billion or more might be possible.
Meanwhile, despite Dr. Kawaoka’s statement that the public cannot do very much, there is some benefit in making preparations. Here are some points to consider:
- Consider stockpiling food and water in order to be able to stay at home and avoid human contact during a major pandemic. Such a serious outbreak would surely lead to civil breakdown as supply chains break down. Having a 90-180 day supply of food and water might not save your life, but it would at least give you more options.
- Also lay in a supply of Lysol, surgical masks, rubber gloves and a full first aid kit. If the mailman brings mail (which might not happen!), spray it with Lysol before handling it. Ask your doctor if he will prescribe some basic drugs such as antibiotics to have on hand, and of course keep an adequate supply of any medicine you need to take regularly. Remember that during a pandemic there will likely be a complete breakdown of the medical system and you will be on your own.
- Be prepared to defend yourself and your food supply. When grocery store shelves are empty and their doors locked, you don’t want strangers (or even your neighbors!) to be aware of your stockpile. Keep it hidden and by all means arm yourself to repel possible attack. You won’t be able to count on the police during a civil crisis of this kind. Good advice would be to have at least a shotgun and a handgun or two along with plenty of ammunition. Go for “heavy artillery,” because if you need to defend yourself you’ll want maximum stopping power. The shotgun should be 12 gauge and loaded with double-ought (00) buckshot. (Many people confuse this term with the much smaller birdshot. Buckshot is designed to kill buck deer, and each shell contains nine lead balls about 30 caliber in diameter. It is an amazingly effective deterrent.) Choose handguns with a bore of at least 9 mm or larger and load them with hollow point bullets. Ask advice from a local gun dealer, and if you are unfamiliar with weapons now would be a good time to take an orientation course at a nearby shooting range.
- Having been bitten more than once including having a piece taken out of my upper lip which required more than 20 stitches, I personally have a strong dislike of dogs, but in a situation such as we are discussing I would probably advocate adding a pooch to the mix. You don’t need a big, predatory brute of a dog, just something loud and persistent. Those traits make the Chihuahua a popular choice. An alert and suspicious dog will patrol your yard and let you know if anything is amiss, then you can back it up with your firepower.
- Don’t expect that having taken the latest flu vaccination will allow any protection against a new strain of the virus. The flu shots are of little help even in normal circumstances, since they are formulated to protect against existing strains that scientists guess might return in the coming season. The flu shots also can have side effects, sometimes serious and permanent ones. Some time back when my doctor suggested giving me a flu shot, I told him that I had read that many health care professionals refuse to take them themselves. I then asked him point-blank whether he did. He admitted that he did not, adding somewhat defensively: “I’m healthy.” Hmmm, there is a message there isn’t there? I decided to do as he did, not as he said, and pass on the flu shot.
- Finally, make yourself aware of the natural supplement that can protect you against influenza — vitamin D. Sometimes called “the sunshine vitamin” because our bodies produce it in our skin from the rays of the sun, vitamin D has recently been shown to provide powerful protection against cold and flu viruses. That explains why those illnesses are most common in winter when there is less sunshine and our bodies become depleted in this vitamin. The relationship is clear. For example, in the southern hemisphere colds and flu peak during our summer when the lower latitudes are experiencing the least sunshine. Even people who live at lower elevations have more risk of colds and flu than those who live in, say, Denver. That is because the atmosphere filters out the UVB rays that produce the vitamin in our skin. Especially in winter, you can never get enough D from the sun to protect you from a viral outbreak, so oral supplementation is the way to go. Lay in a supply of the D3 version and begin taking 2000 IU per day. If a pandemic begins to appear, double that dosage. The vitamin is not toxic in these dosage ranges and could give your immune system the additional boost it would need to resist infection. Plus, you will gain a major health benefit even if no pandemic appears because recent research has shown that adequate levels of D3 will provide significant protection against several major forms of cancer as well as heart disease. And, you’ll probably avoid routine colds and flu from this time on.
Like the Boy Scouts say, it will pay to “Be Prepared” in case we face a major pandemic.