Warnings Of a New Bird Flu Pandemic
Health experts agree that no disease more desperately needs a vaccine than influenza, as soon as possible.
There is a new virus actively infecting poultry across China that has started spreading from birds to humans. In a recent escalation of the disease, 88% of those infected got pneumonia, three-quarters of patients were admitted to intensive care with respiratory issues and 41% of patients died. This new “bird flu”, labelled H7N9 by scientists, has the potential to infect tens of millions of people. Experts know that it’s only a matter of time before an air-borne virus contained in China begins to spread abroad.
Potentially fatal outbreaks are increasing worldwide. Over the past 30 years, outbreaks have more than tripled each year. The CDC ranks H7N9 as the strain of flu that has the highest potential to cause a pandemic (a global outbreak of infectious disease). And while it is currently spreading faster amongst poultry, the spillover is increasing at a rate that is cause for alarm.
A spillover is what disease experts call a pathogen jump in species, specifically from animals to humans. Almost all new, recognized, infectious diseases originate in animals but more and more, these diseases are jumping to humans. This has occurred many times throughout history, but humans are more vulnerable than ever before for several reasons. With increasing changes in climate, the warmer temperatures cause an influx in the range of animals that carry disease, subsequently increasing our exposure. Terrorist groups are designing methods to spread germs and pathogens with more frequency. And most notably, the population is at an all-time global high, meaning the likelihood of becoming infected is higher than ever before, particularly in metropolitan areas. We are also travelling more often than ever before and experts note that an infection can reach one major city from another in less than a day.
Experts note that 25% of the world’s cases of pneumonia and nearly 70% of meningitis are caused by unknown pathogens. Back in the 1980’s, computers would take years to sequence the genetic data required from a patient in order to recognize the hidden pathogens. But today, programs are analyzing 10 million reads in less than half an hour. Genetic sequencing is invaluable when unknown pathogens begin to kill people in large numbers.
Microbes evolve nearly 40 million times as fast as humans do. Experts at the Harvard Global Health Institute feel the most likely killer over the next ten years is a pandemic. Thankfully, scientists have a better understanding of risk factors and recognition of warning signs than ever before. They are now in a position to predict an outbreak before it happens and can work appropriately in order to be prepared. One of the biggest roadblocks remains with the government as there is a notable failure to invest in measures now that will keep us protected in future.
The United States is alarmingly exposed to an infectious disease outbreak because so many key areas where critical funding is needed towards research, prevention and treatment of such diseases is lacking. The CDC is still awaiting a new director and in order to meet President Trump’s pledge to increase the defense budget, major cuts will have to be made in areas of heath care that include emerging disease research work and pandemic-prevention programs. The U.S. government does not commit funds in a way that suggests fighting pandemics is a national priority. Instead, funds are allocated on a disease-by-disease basis, usually after a crisis has already begun.
This is why investors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Britain’s Wellcome Trust charity, the European Commission and the governments of Norway, Japan and Germany have launched the CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). Their mission statement reads: “We want to stop future epidemics by developing new vaccines for a safer world”. This group realizes that vaccines need to be developed long before an epidemic occurs and recognize that developing countries, with fragile infrastructure, are often hit the hardest. This coalition has vowed to commit funding to overcome barriers that have previously prevented vaccination development.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, believes that no disease better demonstrates the requirement for a vaccine than the flu, because it mutates every year and the process that is required to create the vaccine for each new strain can be deadly during an influenza pandemic. Humans have little, if any, natural immunity against new flu strains, which are known to spread quickly and can cause more serious diseases. Because of the length of time it takes to develop a vaccination against a single pathogen, like the flu, and the costs involved, many drug companies do not feel it’s a worthwhile business. But getting a flu shot every year is still the best way that you can protect yourself against influenza virus.