Sunday, April 26, 2009

Aporkalypse Now?

By Darryl Mason

Some 25 students and teachers in New Zealand have been quarantined and checked for infection by the killer swine flu virus after returning from a trip to Mexico, where more than 1000 people have caught the communicable H1N1 influenza virus, killing more than 100. The swine flu virus has been detected in humans in three major American cities, apparently spreading from Mexico to New York in less than 72 hours.

The current swine flu virus which appears to be spreading human to human is a bizarre brew of genes from American and Asian swine influenza, human influenza and avian influenza (bird flu). Did someone spill something in a bioweapons lab?

After spending a good chunk of 2007 and 2008 researching what a killer flu pandemic could do to a city society, for my online novel, ED Day, and learning perhaps a little too much about the shocking potential for death and suffering a deadly influenza pandemic can deliver, the fast spread and high death toll of this swine flu outbreak, so far, has given me a serious case of The Fear.

The World Health Organisation regards what is now unfolding as a worse case scenario.

The first cases of human infection by this new swine flu in Mexico are believed to have been detected in mid-March, more than five weeks ago.

There is no vaccine for this virus, and it could take six months to develop and begin distributing one, with no guarantee it would stop the deaths, or halt the spread of the virus. Anti-virals, like Tamiflu, can offer some protection, but the Australian government stockpiles of Tamiflu are believed to have reached their expiration dates late last year.

We are being told, tonight, that anyone in Australia who has visited Mexico since early March, and are suffering "influenza like illness" (ILI), should get to a doctor. That's not enough. They should also be avoiding physical contact with friends and family, and wearing a face mask to stop themselves from inadvertently spreading this potentially pandemic influenza virus further.

To be truly safe, the government should immediately announce the same for anyone who has visited the United States, and New Zealand, in the past two weeks. The swine flu virus, H1N1, can be carried by humans for weeks without manifesting itself, but still allowing possible human to human transmission.

Yesterday, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), basically the front line soldiers for stopping the spread of pandemic influenza in the United States, admitted defeat :
CDC acting director Dr. Richard Besser told reporters in a telephone briefing it was likely too late to try to contain the outbreak, by vaccinating, treating or isolating people.
The CDC must know a lot more about just how far and wide the swine flu virus has already spread in the United States to officially make such a stunning claim.

The Australian FedGov's Pandemic Influenza website is here, but it is woefully un-updated.

UPDATE : The Mexican government is asking the public to wear face masks, stay away from large gatherings - schools, shopping malls, sports stadiums, train stations, have been closed in Mexico City (population 22 million) and obey the following rules :
...avoid large crowds, refrain from kissing as a greeting and maintain a distance of at least 1.8 meters (six feet) from each other.
Shaking hands should also definitely be out. During the SARS and Ebola Virus outbreaks, WHO officials visiting infected countries developed the habit of tapping elbows when they greeted someone, instead of shaking hands. Like this :

The federal government is expected to hold what amounts to emergency meetings on how to deal with a possible, looming pandemic on Monday and Tuesday.

You will be able to judge for yourself how serious the threat of a swine flu pandemic is in Australia, before any official announcement, by how quickly government ministers and the media start talking about the importance of :

Social Distancing

UPDATE : Would it be tasteless to start referring to this new deadly virus as ManBirdPig Flu?

It's certainly accurate.

Thanks to an anonymous commenter for the suggestion.

UPDATE : I just got an e-mail from a virologist who helped me on some details for the ED Day novel. He said he would call what's going on now "pre-pandemic", meaning if a pandemic was to become reality, this is pretty much how it would begin, that this is what the first few days would look like : one big central outbreak, then rapid a stream of reported infections around the world.

He said it's still too soon to say whether the swine flu virus is more than likely to become a pandemic, though he noted that at least one virologist he knows well is claiming the World Health Organisation is preparing to move its Pandemic Threat Level from 3 to 4, on a scale of 1 to 6.

I asked him if other virologists and pandemic specialists were nervous, he replied that every time there's another run of human deaths from H5N1 (bird flu) - there's been at least three deaths in Egypt, and two or three in Vietnam, from H5N1, in the past week - his peers get nervous. Human to human transmission of swine flu is simply bad news in general, but pandemics of swine flu and bird flu spreading at the same time is the stuff of nightmares.

He also said that most mainstream media are particularly hopeless at accurately reporting medical stories, infuriatingly so. He said he doesn't hold out much hope the reportage of the swine flu virus from the mainstream media will impress him and his colleagues.

More On This Soon