Healthy Body

No one is immune to fear – the killer virus prediction

The predicted result of humans squandering the earth is a global health pandemic.

The continuous shredding and dismantling of our ancient ecosystems, reveals many cryptic, mysterious and unexposed infections which have been swept under the rug by nature for hundreds of years.

Steven Soderbergh tugged this rug back in his fast paced medical thriller Contagion. This movie may have passed a cosy Saturday night in for some but in reality, he has given us an insight into our future by exploring the particles under the rug which could overcome our defenceless bodies in the coming years.

Dr Ian Lipkin, Professor of Epidemiology, Neurology and Pathology at New York’s Columbia University, was a technical advisor on the film set and has warned scientists that they must be well prepared for such an epidemic which will occur and which is currently happening in smaller doses.

According to Lipkin, the plot is anything but unrealistic.

“Virus outbreaks are an increasing threat in the 21st century”, he says, “because of greater international trade and travel, urbanisation, loss of wildlife habitats and inadequate investment in infrastructure for surveillance, vaccine production and distribution.”

National and international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Centre For Disease Control (ECDC), have been preparing for the severity of a 2003 SARS-like virus killing one and infecting another.

According to PubMed Health, SARS, a critical form of pneumonia, “is a dramatic example of how quickly world travel can spread a disease. It is also an example of how quickly a connected health system can respond to a new health threat”.

The new virus is believed to have begun in the Middle East through the passing of pathogens from small mammals to humans. This leapfrog action from animal to human and its confirmed establishment in the human body is commonly referred to by medics as zoonosis.

Human-to-human transmission has not yet been confirmed in this new virus, but there are zoonotic diseases which are passed from animals to humans and then from human to human; such would include rabies, swine flu and avian flu, all of which have previously carried the threat of extreme global pandemics.

Award-winning science writer David Quammen is set to release his next best-seller this October in which he tracks diseases which have previously threatened the nation. Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic investigates the spillover effect of infectious diseases from animals to humans in previous cases such as that of Ebola, SARS, and something called the Hendra virus, which is passed from bats to horses and then onto humans.

The biggest question is, however, what does the future hold in terms of the next big epidemic?

Well, if deforestation and urbanisation continues, even more foreign wildlife will come in contact with domestic animals and humans than ever before. Furthermore, the globalisation of food production heightens our vulnerability to a global pandemic.

We really have only ourselves to blame for this fear. And, as Soderbergh stresses in his film, “no one is immune to fear” and it will figure us out faster than we ever could.

Every day it seems a new threat is revealed; drinking hot tea, cooking frozen chips for dinner, and even working late night shifts to earn a bit of extra cash can cause cancer. These global health warnings however differ greatly.

Cancer is not infectious. Viruses such as Ebola and SARS are. So is it right for so much time to be spent on completely curing a non-infectious disease when really the entire nation could be wiped out within two weeks of a global epidemic?

As a cancer survivor, I am obviously not against cancer research. I owe my life to it, but I will question the amount of time and thought put into preventing or resisting the next global infectious disease. Antibiotics are suddenly failing us and the more antibiotics we lose, the less likely we are to survive a worldwide epidemic.

Seán Dillane, a third year medical student in the National University of Ireland, Galway, says that one of the major problems currently, is the growing amount of acquired drug resistance in bacteria. Mr Dillane discussed two contributors to antibiotic resistance; failing to finish out prescribed antibiotics and also asking for antibiotics when they are not needed.

“People are not complying with their prescribed medication and once they are feeling better they do not finish out the antibiotic. This then results in the growth of resistant bacteria. Because of these resistant bacteria, some diseases that used to be easy to treat are now becoming nearly impossible to treat.”

“Extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) for example, is a form of tuberculosis which is caused by bacteria that are now resistant to all of the most effective anti-TB drugs. There are now only 4 main drugs used to treat TB and it’s management is vital,” adds  Mr Dillane.

In terms of using prescriptions when unnecessary, the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) has emphasised that most common infections caused by viruses, including “all colds, most coughs, sore throats, ear infections and diarrhoea” cannot be cured by antibiotics.

The HSE further warns us of the side effects suffered by one in five people who pursue a worthless antibiotic. By using an unnecessary prescription you are putting yourself at greater risk of a more severe infection which may not be treatable.

Health authorities around the globe closely monitor new life threatening infectious diseases which are constantly emerging. The WHO for instance is responsible for monitoring and assessing health trends amongst many other things. However, we do not know what lies ahead of us and whether or not we will be able to manage it.

Lipkin has admitted on a Discovery News documentary that we lack a force that can track infectious diseases, that we have no fast way to diagnose an infectious disease, and also that there is no way to make “state of the art vaccines” that would be needed if an epidemic is to occur.

This is frightening. There are many steps we could take that might increase our chances of resistance; nonetheless, not many are willing to heed such advice and remain oblivious to such a prediction.

The reality is that, in a few years, cancer could be the least of our worries.