As if Contagion weren't enough to freak you out this flu season, the dangerous details of a pair of new flu viruses -- one bioengineered avian, one naturally occurring swine strain -- is almost enough to make you start wearing a biohazard suit to work. But there's also some signs of hope in promising progress towards the development of a universal flu vaccine. Either way, be careful not to scare yourself into self-imposed quarantine when reading about the dangerous dangers of diseases.
Science magazine started off the latest wave of flu scares last week with their appropriately headlined article: "Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies." Well the storm came in waves over the past few days, perhaps peaking last night with the fear-mongering headline on Glenn Beck's news site The Blaze: "Pandemic Possible?" Explaining the details of the Dutch scientist who engineered the frightening new strain of the avian flu and reported his findings at an influenza conference in Malta in September, Gizmodo really slathered on scare tactics:
In his Netherlands laboratory, virologist Ron Fouchier was experimenting with the avian flu virus to see how it could become even more virulent. (Red flag.) His research involved spreading it throughout a population of ferrets, and he noticed that as the virus reproduced, it adapted to spread even faster. (RED FLAG.) Not worried about ferret flu? Previous research has shown that any strains of influenza that can pass between ferrets can also pass between humans. (RED FLAAAAAAAAAG.) Ten generations later, his efforts had created an airborne strain with the power could kill half the human population. (RED FUCKING FLAG, DUDE!)
It didn't help when the World Health Organization sounded puzzled when reporting on a newly discovered strain of the swine flu virus this week. Most unfortunately for many Atlantic Wire readers, the strain happens to be springing up around the United States, with 10 confirmed cases in Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Iowa. "We're very aware that we don't want to over-play or under-play. We're trying to get that right," said leading influenza expert Dr. Keiji Fukuda from the safety of WHO headquarters in Geneva. "[We're] trying to make sure that we're ready to move quickly, if we have to move quickly, but also trying not to raise alarm bells."
So let's focus on that calming theme: trying not to raise alarm bells. Indeed, new strains of the flu appear every year, and it's been almost a century since the last influenza pandemic killed millions in 1918. Modern medicine has come a long way over the decades, and just last month, an optimistic series of reports suggested that scientists might have a universal flu vaccine ready within the next five years that could prevent another devastating pandemic from wiping out a sizeable chunk of the world's population. The Los Angeles Times reports:
A couple of companies have already tested their formulations in people. BiondVax Pharmaceuticals in Ness Ziona, Israel, is working on a vaccine that could be ready as early as 2014, predicts Wayne Rudolph, the company's vice president for corporate development. Seek, a drug development company in London, hopes to have a market-ready product in three to five years, says Chief Executive Gregory Stoloff.
This is no reason to take a trip to Holland and try your luck with Fouchier's ultra-horrifying superflu, but it should calm your anxiety somewhat. And if you've actually seen Contagion, a movie largely hailed for its realistic depiction of what would happen in the event of a pandemic, you'll know that researchers at places like the WHO and the Center for Disease Control are incredibly smart and nimble when it comes to responding to new threats. In fact, the CDC has already declared that the new swine flu strain is no cause for panic. That bioengineered avian strain might be. But it's better not to freak out about it. Stress can weaken your immune system.