I am currently in the throes of Round 8 (or 9, or 20…I’ve lost count at this point!) of my bout with bird flu. Yes, of course, it’s really only a cold or a sinus infection, (or seasonal allergies that seem to span all 4 seasons of the year, if you got your medical degree from Liberia) but as I’ve said before, it sounds much more glamorous to have the first human case of the Avian Flu in the United States, so until proven otherwise, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Anyway, I bring this up because there have been news reports out of North Sumatra over the last few days of a cluster of human Avian Flu deaths that they haven’t been able to link to exposure to infected birds. Of course, they haven’t been able to definitively link it to human-to-human transmission either, but when you have 6 or 7 or 8 (depending on whose version of the story you read) members of the same family die of the same illness within a 3 week period, you kind of have to wonder. Which scenario has better odds…that all 8 family members were exposed to the same sick bird – in what family anywhere is everyone ever all together at the same time??? – or that one got sick and passed it on to those closest to them?
According to the World Health Organization, it’s something to keep an eye on, but not really cause for concern at this point. While human-to-human transmission is not a genetic impossibility, especially when there is extremely close exposure such as a parent would have while taking care of a sick child, the virus itself does not seem to have mutated yet to the point where there is ease of transmission from one human to another through casual contact. Once we have that, if the virus ever mutates to that point, we will have a serious problem.
A couple of weeks ago, I started to reread my favorite book, The Stand, by Stephen King. Have you read it? And no, don’t you dare tell me that you saw the mini-series where they had the nerve to cast whiney Molly Ringwald as Frannie, because I will tell you most emphatically that that does not count! I don’t know what it is about that book, but ever since I first read it in middle school, I’ve been hooked. Way back then, it was about 775 pages long, but in 1990, the “uncut and unabriged” version – all 1153 pages of it – was released, much to my delight. In the 8th grade we had to give an oral report on any book that we wanted. While my classmates read books like “Are you There God, It’s Me, Margaret” and “A Wrinkle in Time,” I got up and told a story about a deadly, lab-engineered Super Flu virus nicknamed “Captain Trips” that wiped out more than 99% of the world’s population in one fell swoop. (I also took a chicken heart to kindergarten for show and tell once, but that is a whole other story!)
I can’t think of a single instance in the book where King refers to what happened as a ‘pandemic’, but that is most certainly what it is about – a pandemic of massive, almost unimaginable proportions. The bulk of the story is about what happened to the people that actually survived the virus and breaks down most simply into the fundamental struggle between Good and Evil, but the first 1/3 of the book gives a rather chilling glimpse into what an Avian Flu pandemic could be like.
Imagine a virus that passes easily from person to person, and is communicable 1-2 days before you even begin to have symptoms. Let’s say, just for kicks, that this virus has an attack rate of 25% (meaning that 25% of whatever group you’re sampling will get the virus) and a mortality rate of 10% (ten percent of those who get sick will die). That could mean as many as 74 million people in the U.S. alone could get sick, and of those people, 7.4 million could die. How many of those 7.4 million dead people run our power stations, supply us with drinkable water, or deliver food to our grocery stores?
That example, I hope, is the worst of all worst-case scenarios, but between the stories in the news recently, and the apocalyptic views of Stephen King, I can’t help but consider the possibilities. If the unthinkable happened, what would you do?