What is a pandemic? Imagine a virus that mutates so fast that it can evade everything our immune system throws at it and can cloak itself to look like our own bodies cells. It kills in 2 to 3 days with with a near 100% lethality and kills in a most horrible way.
Lungs turn into something akin to shredded bloody rags and it destroys the liver, kidneys, pancreas and any other organ with impunity. It is transmitted by touch, inhalation, ingestion.
It has developed a resistance to every antiviral known and can circle the globe in a matter of days.
When unleashed into the world's human population, it would easily kill over half of all the people in the world or about 3.5 billion people. That would accurately describe a pandemic.
A pandemic is an epidemic that spreads to multiple continents and possibly world-wide. The word derives from Greek meaning "all people". The most likely candidate for the next global health disaster is a deadly bird flu virus designated H5N1
The foregoing scenario is not imaginary. It is in fact brewing inside our high density, corporate pig and chicken factory farms and all it has to learn is how to efficiently jump from chickens or pigs to humans.
Flu viruses are identified by the H*N* designation where the H stands for the enzyme Hemaglutinen and the N for the enzyme neurominadase. The numerals following the letters identify the particular strain of the virus. So far 16 varieties of the H enzyme have been identified (H1 through H16) and 9 varieties of the N enzyme (N1 through N9).
All this only matters when it comes to distinguishing one flu strain from another. These viruses are identified by their surface enzymes, for example, the H5N1 avian flu virus means that this particular virus has its surface covered with the 5th hemagglutinin and spikes of the 1st neuraminidase.
The "H" allows the virus to bind to our cells via one of the glycoproteins on our cell surface, namely sialic acid also known as neuraminic acid. Once the virus is bound to the cell, the "N" component hacks its way through the protective mucus coating and enters the cell to start highjacking DNA and replicating.
As this is being written, the Ebola virus is once again in the headlines. Ten and possibly more infected persons are being flown in specially equipped aircraft to the U.S. for treatment. As bad as Ebola is, it is unlikely to be the cause of the next pandemic.
For starters, it has not demonstrated an ability to mutate and its mode of transmission is fairly awkward compared to some of the more common strains of flu. It is unlikely that Ebola will become a true pandemic.
Imagine a small ember from a campfire getting picked up by a breeze, carried away and burning down the whole forest. Now instead of a spark, think about a bird flu virus and instead of a campfire, think of a chicken or turkey factory farm, and instead of a breeze we have an exposed traveler boarding an international flight making several stops in route to the final destination. In this scenario, the forest is the world and the forest fire is a pandemic.
The sparks or flu viruses are there now and all they need to do is learn how to jump from bird to human.
Today, March 16, 2015, as reported in the Wall St. Journal, U.S. authorities are scrambling to contain a strain of avian flu, H5N2, discovered in Butterball contract turkey farms in Arkansas and Missouri. This particular virus causes massive internal bleeding in poultry and can kill almost every bird in the flock in forty eight hours and has the ability to mutate.
So far it has not learned how to infect humans. The properties have been quarantined and the flock of 40,020 birds will be destroyed. In the meantime, China and Mexico have stopped importing poultry. Just the week before, this same strain destroyed a flock of 15,000 turkeys in Minnesota.
A quick roundup of other current outbreaks of bird flu include:
The Chinese outbreak is particularly worrisome in that its strain of H7N9 is transmissible to humans and it can be lethal. In 2013 China had 135 cases and 43 deaths; in 2014 there were 319 cases and 134 deaths and to date in 2015, 114 cases and 24 deaths have been recorded and the year is only 3 months old.
Switching to the swine flu, in India, strain H1N1 has infected 23,153 people and killed 1,239 so far in 2015. The infection rate is similar to Ebola which has sickened 23,948 people but Ebola is far more lethal, killing 9,729 people.
Of all the different flu viruses, what makes H5N1 and H7N9 so special that they are causing such concern among virologists? H5N1 is a close relative of the 1918 Spanish flu virus that reportedly killed around 50 million people worldwide. It appears to be the best candidate for the next pandemic.
CDC researchers have been able to reconstruct the 1918 virus and it turned out to be the H1N1 variety. While the two do not share the exact surface enzymes, they do share some very important traits. The most alarming is that they both know how to defeat our bodies immune defenses by cloaking its RNA with a non-structural protein called NS-1. In simple language it uses this protein to cover its tracks.
Another commonality is in who the two viruses prefer. Most of our seasonal flu viruses only harm the very old and the very young but H5N1 like its predecessor the H1N1 are most lethal to those in the prime of life, between 20 and 40 years old.
In those individuals with the most robust immune systems, the virus tricks the body into attacking itself by unleashing huge amounts of chemical messengers called cytokines to trigger a deadly inflammatory reaction in the lungs. It has the effect of turning the lungs into something resembling bloody, shredded rags and this happens in about 24 to 36 hours.
The H1N1 virus is still around today and infects a lot people every year so this begs the question as to why it doesn't kill millions like it did in 1918.
The answer lies in our adaptive immune system which makes antibodies to the various bugs that infect us. Those individuals that survived the 1918 outbreak were immune to future exposures due to the new antibodies they were now carrying around. In the decades that followed, most of the world's population acquired an immunity to the H1 spikes.
All was well and good until a new flu virus, the H2N2, appeared on the scene in 1957 and was tagged as the "Asian flu". Since there was little immunity to the H2 spikes, it infected a large portion of the world's people but since this version had not learned all the tricks of H1N1, it was less virulent. About half of the school children fell ill but worldwide, only about a million or so died.
It seems that we have become a little too complacent about a flu pandemic.
Reading about how the 1918 flu pandemic killed people is not for the faint of heart...it is absolutely terrifying. Dr. Michael Gregor,MD in his 2006 book, "Bird Flu, A Virus Of Our Own Hatching" writes:
What started...as muscle aches and pains and a fever, ended days later with many victims bleeding from their nostrils, ears and eye sockets. Some bled inside their eyes; some bled around them. They vomited blood and coughed it up. Purple blood blisters appeared on their skin...They were bleeding into their lungs.
As victims struggled to clear their airways of the bloody froth that poured from their lungs, their bodies started to turn blue...a deep indigo blue color...that made it even difficult to distinguish black men from white.
Along the way you had symptoms like fingers and genitals turning black, and people being able to literally smell the body decaying before the patient died.
At autopsy, frothy, bloody serum poured from the nose and mouth when the body was moved, or the head lowered...Pus streamed from the trachea when the lungs were removed...lungs up to six times their normal weight, looking like melted red currant jelly...As people choked to death, violently coughing...their lungs would sometimes burst internally, forcing air under pressure up underneath their skin...These pockets of air leaking from ruptured lungs made patients crackle when they rolled onto their sides
The pandemic only stopped when it ran out of humans to infect. Those who lived through it were immune to reinfection. Populations became either immune or dead.
Take a look at Dr. Gregor's book by clicking the book's image or the banner link below.
It was first thought that the 1918 flu came from pigs but it was not certain if pigs infected the farmers or farmers catching the flu infected their pigs. Decades would have to pass before the entire genome of the 1918 Spanish flu was sequenced in 2005. In that year it was determined that the greatest mass murderer of all time came from avian influenza...it was bird flu.
Given that flu viruses have a proclivity to mutate, what really has the CDC, WHO and other health agencies very worried is that it is highly likely that both H5N1 and H7N9 could only be a few mutations away from spreading easily though our population centers, triggering another pandemic.
Also given the extremely high lethality of these strains and the fact that humans have not been widely exposed to them before, it could be a catastrophic event, killing over a billion people around the world.
The bad news is that too many healthcare provides are still treating flu symptoms with antibiotics instead of antiviral drugs; antibiotics don't work against the flu virus.
The good news is that in the 2015 flu season, there has been an uptick in the number of people being treated with antivirals.
The bad news is that there is not enough antivirals being stockpiled to be used in the event of a pandemic event.
The good news is that there are several new antiviral flu drugs either approved or under development. Biota Pharmaceuticals has Inavir, an inhaled flu drug, in development, and BioCryst Pharmaceuticals has Rapivab, an injectable, in development. Rapivab already has FDA approval. Fujifilm has a phamaceutical division, the Toyama Chemical Company, that has a new drug, Avigan, which is approved in Japan and close to FDA approval.
The bad news is that the existing flu drugs, Tamiflu (Roche) and Relenza (GlaxoSmithKline) have to be administered fast. If they are not given within 48 hours after symptoms present, they don't work.
More bad news is that they must be taken twice a day and even worse, several strains of flu have become resistant to neuraminidase inhibitors, especially Tamiflu. Nevertheless, these are the drugs that are stockpiled in the U.S. for use in a major influenza outbreak. Looks like we need a few more drugs in development for the next pandemic.
As individuals, we can educate ourselves on how to limit our exposure to the flu and take precautions to protect ourselves and survive if a flu pandemic comes calling. Most of the precautions we have heard before but never thought much about. Now, however, following those precautions could be the difference between life and death.
Recall the the flu virus is spread primarily by an infected person coughing or even exhaling respiratory droplets of the virus in mucus and saliva. Even normal conversational speech can spread thousands of these microscopic droplets that settle out of the air into a persons environment. The infection occurs when one of these droplets lands on someone's eye, in their mouth, up their nose or is transferred to these spots by contaminated hands. An infectious droplet landing on a doorknob, counter top, furniture or just about anything that someone might touch.
Then there is the bathroom to consider. Live viruses have been isolated from the diarrhea of children dying from H5N1. So it would follow that toilet seats could be significantly contaminated but also a fecal-oral pathway could be established by the aerosolized toilet water from flushing. Flumes of this aerosolized water easily reaches the several feet into the air. Flu or no flu, good bathroom hygiene mandates lowering the toilet lid before flushing and cleaning toilet seats and sink surfaces with an alcohol solution; more or that further on.
Important precautions to take in the advent of a true flu pandemic include:
It is fairly easy to spot bird flu when it hits. The first casualties are flocks of chickens, turkeys, ducks and some wildfowl and the reason it is easy to spot is that it wipes out entire flocks.
In this instance, it's not the backyard chickens that are hit so hard, it is the captive birds in the factory farms across the country. Factory farms, otherwise known as CAFOs, confined animal feeding operations, are the petri dishes for the breeding of avian flu viruses.
Buy the Masks; Click the Product Image above
The best way to limit the spread of bird flu would be to radically transform the whole CAFO system by breaking it up. Instead of having thousands of captive birds closely confined in barns or cages, get back to the concept of small flocks dispersed among thousands of small farms across the country. Unfortunately it will never happen since the existing system is protected by our government regulators and supported by well-meaning people who think it is our duty to feed the world.
The only thing that will change the system is a bird flu pandemic that will destroy most of the nation's poultry and kill half the population or more. It's not a question of "if", the only question is "when" and are we prepared. The answer is "don't know" and "no".
We don't know when the virus will learn to infect humans on a mass scale and no, we are not prepared. Outbreaks are already occurring more frequently and more people are dying as a result except that so far, the deaths have been limited to those persons that actually raise the flocks and are directly exposed to them. That will certainly change.
Regarding factory farmed meat and poultry, just don't eat it. Patronize your local farmers markets or outlets where the meat, poultry and eggs are from pasture raised animals.Fossil Farms below is one such outlet that can be accessed right here. First watch the company video courtesy of You Tube, then click the banner under the video and browse their site and support their operation by placing your order. Rest assured, no pandemic is going to start here.
Plan A is to eat natural, healthy, organic meats and produce and keep our immune systems in peak working order. As careful as we are, we can assume that when the pandemic hits, it will be every man (or woman) for themselves. Personal preparation, avoidance of close contact and practicing extreme hygiene is plan B but it's all we have for now.
If we are lucky, and a pandemic holds off for a few more
years, we hope there will be enough avian flu vaccine stockpiled for the
population and that it will be the right vaccine for the strain of flu that hits.
Leave Pandemic page, return to Home page
Go back to Infectious Organisms page
Visit the Animal Factory page to navigate to different CAFO types
Go to the Factory Farming and Health pages
Review the Environmental Problem pages