Posts Tagged ‘Swine Flu’

From 1998: Times Speculates on the Resurgence of New Plagues

July 18, 2020

Here’s another old article, this time from the Times, Monday, August 4 1997. Written by Anjana Ahuja, ‘Are We Ready for the Next Plague’ argues that the world has been mistaken in scaling back its defences against global disease, leaving us seriously unprepared. Subtitled ‘We are dropping our defences against disease’, the article runs

In the Middle Ages, one would not have lingered by the marshes of eastern England, particularly those in Kent and Essex. Nowhere in the country, which was falling prey to plagues, was more hospitable to the malaria parasite.

The menace of malaria hung over British shores until the mid-19th century, when it mysteriously declined. By 1940, the disease was no longer a threat to humans, because of rising standards of hygiene, the falling price of the anti-malarial drug quinine and the lessening availability of cattle, on which mosquitoes prefer to dine. But there is no guarantee, says a leading parasitologist, that malaria will not haunt the nation again.

The warning has been issued by Robert Desowitz, Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, who has spent many of his 71 years studying insect-borne diseases in places such as Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Burma, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, India, Laos, Vietnam and Sir Lanka. His view, expressed in his book, Tropical Diseases, is that the “golden age of antibiotics is waning”. As a result, he says, it is not impossible that the nightmares once vanquished by modern science will recur. Isolated outbreaks of Ebola and Lassa fever are, like the rise of HIV, a sign to him that we should be on our guard. However, he does not wish to seem apocalyptic. ” It may be true thyat there are diseases coming out of the jungle to kill us,” he says. “My response is that we don’t know that, but we ought to stay alert.”

His book is an eloquent, and sometimes alarming, history of how diseases have hitched their way around the world. The subtext is that humans, particularly in the colder climes (this includes the British), live in a fool’s paradise. Our defences are further weakened by mass migration and global change, leading to great changes in epidemiology. He expresses incredulity that worldwide efforts to combat infectious disease are being would down.

“I was listening on the radio this morning to America’s new military chief of staff, who was saying that we cannot demilitarise against old enemies,” he says. “The symmetry with disease struck me. We are not properly prepared.”

“The science budget is shrinking. My opinion is that the World Health Organisation is scientifically bankrupt. We are having problems with infectious disease. If you were going to certain parts of the world, you would be hard pushed to find a really good anti-malarial drug. We have neither cures nor preventions for viral diseases such as Ebola, Lassa and HIV.”

One particular worry is climate change, which he sees as an enormous potential problem. Tropical diseases such as malaria are very temperature-sensitive-higher temperatures allow an influx of alien pests and the warmth encourages the pests to breed more rapidly.

Other researchers have been discovering the effect of climate change on unwelcome visitors. Biologists at Leeds University have set up a simple experiment that shows what happens to insects when faced with temperature changes. Using eight linked cages, and three species of fruit fly adapted to different temperatures, Professor Bryan Shorrocks and Dr Andrew Davis have tried to replicate what would happen to fruit flies if the temperature changed across Europe. the Biotechnology and and Biological Research Council financed the £241,000 project.

The cages were connected by thin tubes through which the flies could migrate. The temperatures in the cages ranged from 10C to 25C; the intention was to mimic average temperatures across a swath of Europe stretching from Leeds to southern Spain. The optimum temperature for the three types of fruit fly – Drosophila subobscura, Drosophila simulans, and Drosophila manogaster – were respective, 15C, 20C and 25C. Fruit flies are easy to use and they breed quickly.

When each species was tested on its owns, and confined to one cage, it became extinct at temperature extremes. The next step was again to treat each species on its own, but to allow it to move through the tubes between cages.

Dr Davis reports: “The flies survived across the whole temperature regime. Where they became extinct, the population was topped up by individuals from other cages looking for more food and space to lay eggs.

The last, and most complex stage, was to populate the cages with different permutations of the three species. This was where the most interesting results began to emerge. For example, when subobscura and simulans were thrown together, the simulans species dominated its familiar temperature climate of 20C., but subobscura was more populous at about 10C, well below its optimum temperature.

Dr Davis says that each species did not necessarily behave according to expectation. He concludes: “We may not be able to predict where a species will occur on the globe purely by knowing its temperature requirements. It’s surprising.

In other words, matching the pest to a temperature zone is not that simple. Dr Davis is keen not be seen as alarmist. “I am not saying these effects will happen, or that they will be important,” he says. “But some of the things that might happen with global warming may need planning, particularly pest problems.

Professor Desowitz does not envisage doom for the human race. Not yet, anyway. “People have survived plagues before, but we are not preparing ourselves properly. Perhaps,” he adds, not without a whiff of menace, “London will become malarious again.”

Meera Senthilingam says much the same thing in her Outbreaks and Epidemics: Battling Infection from Measles to Coronavirus (London: Icon 2020). Climate change, migration and mass travel are leaving us vulnerable to new epidemics, traditional antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. And we still have no cures or treatments for diseases like Lassa fever. or Ebola. But whatever other faults Blair’s government had – and these are legion, like the invasion of Iraq – it did take the threat of a renewed epidemic seriously, especially after Avian and Swin flu. They invested in the NHS, and developed specialist medical and bureaucratic machinery and protocols to combat such an epidemic when it came along. And when the epidemic was wargamed in 2016, the Tories knew that we were seriously underprepared. But they simply didn’t care. They wanted austerity and budget cuts so they could give tax cuts to the super-rich. And as a result, this country has one of the very worst infection rates and mortality from Coronavirus in the world.

They knew the disease was coming. They did nothing.

60,000+ people have died.

The Tories are guilty, and Johnson is responsible for mass manslaughter at least.

 

No, We Are (Probably) Not Going to See a Black Death Pandemic

July 6, 2020

Mike this morning has put up a piece on his blog reporting that the Chinese city of Bayannur in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, has sounded the alarm after a hospital reported a case of Bubonic Plague. This was the disease, spread by fleas on rodents, which was responsible for the Black Death in 14th century Europe. The disease is believed to have killed a half to two-thirds of the European population and China experienced an even higher number of deaths.

Coming after the Coronavirus pandemic, this all sounds really scary, right? Well, I don’t think there’s any need to panic. Bubonic Plague has still been around in parts of the Developing World, like India for years. There’s no question that it should be wiped out, but it’s now much, much less lethal than its medieval and early modern predecessor. So much so that some historians and microbiologists have wondered if it really is the same disease.

For example, way back in the 1990’s New Scientist carried a piece about an outbreak in India. It was extremely localized. While the people living in one house or set of houses fell ill with the disease, the folks a few doors down were left unscathed. The small scale of Bubonic plague outbreaks, which only mercifully affect a very few, have led some scientists to question whether the Black Death was actually another, far more contagious disease. Back when I was at secondary school, the Beeb’s history series, Timewatch, aired a programme which suggested that the Black Death may instead have been anthrax. I think the symptoms are similar, but anthrax can also be contracted from dead bodies, which Bubonic Plague cannot. This would explain why Medieval people believed even handling the bodies of the dead was dangerous.

There is another, related form of Bubonic Plague, Pneumonic Plague, which is rather more serious as its an airborne disease and so more contagious. But fortunately even the outbreaks of this disease have been far more restricted than the outbreaks of the plague in the Middle Ages and 16th/17th centuries.

Rather more worrying is the news, which was also reported by the Mirror as well as a number of other papers, that a new strain of Swine Flu has developed, which is resistant to current vaccines. I’d consider that a more serious risk, but I don’t think we’re quite in danger of seeing that become a world-wide pandemic just yet.

Obviously, these diseases need to be monitored and are of serious concern to organizations like the World Health Organization, but the chances of either of these becoming another global pandemic like the Coronavirus is probably remote. As for avoiding people who have visited the Far East, I can remember Dr Kevin Fong’s remarks at the Cheltenham Festival of Science during the Bird Flu epidemic. Fong was speaking about space medicine, of which he’s an expert. He was also suffering from a cold and had just come back from Beijing. As he appeared on stage blowing his nose into a handkerchief, he reassured the crowd by saying, ‘Don’t worry – it’s just a cold.’ He explained how he’d just come back from the Chinese capital, and said that it was amazing how much room you could get now on the London Underground as an Asian man. Which was his jokey way of allaying any suspicions.

It might still be best to avoid people, who have travelled to China and neighbouring countries, but that would only be because of the Coronavirus. I’m very sure we aren’t going to see a return of the Plague next.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/07/06/if-you-thought-2020-couldnt-get-worse-brace-yourself-for-the-black-death/