A new factor in the "death equation" is the high density of people on our planet today. Thousands of years ago, civilizations were significantly more isolated. If a cave man had contracted a "killer flu," his local community and perhaps a few surrounding communities would have been wiped out. But others, being far from the afflicted regions, would have been left unscathed. Today, most people are in contact with the neighbors, who in turn are in contact with their neighbors, and so on, thereby forming "a network of people" across the globe that can allow a virus to quite easily spread. The fact that people travel large distances by car, train or plane does not help the situation. The current high population of humans has a positive and negative effect on our survival chances: On one hand, if a contagious killer disease arises, a great number of people helps to ensure that a few will survive. On the other hand, it allows the disease to spread more readily. It is unclear which effect, the positive or negative one, is bigger.
There are two principal sources of new viruses:
(1) old viruses that mutate into new strands, and
(2) viruses acquired from animals.
Many forms of flu and common colds originate in Asia and, in particular, in China. There, people often live in close proximity to livestock. Ducks, pigs, horses, chickens and other farm animals sometimes pass to a person what-had-previously-been a virus absent in humans. With dense populations in the region, it does not take long for the new disease to spread through Asia and then the world.
In May of 1997, a boy died due to respiratory problems and inflammation of the brain. Somehow he managed to become infected with a chicken virus, known as H5N1. The influenza virus, as of the writing of this report on January 1, 1998, has afflicted 14 individuals in Hong Kong and is suspected of being present in another six. Of the 14 confirmed cases, four have died, three are in critical condition, six have recovered and have been discharged, and one is under treatment in satisfactory condition. Since H5N1 does not have a 100% mortality rate, it cannot be the dreaded killer disease imaged in the first paragraph of this report -- nor does it appear to be highly contagious since only a handful of cases have appeared during a seven month period. But what is particularly frightening is that the virus is of the strand A form, the type that can mutate itself in response to an immune system. This leaves open the small possibility of a change in the character of H5N1 leading to a deadly epidemic.
Officials, experts and scientists from institutions such as the Hong Kong Health Department, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have mobilized. Necessary preventative measures, such as the slaughter of over one million Hong Kong chickens, have been carried out. Even if H5N1 mutates into a contagious form, hopefully a vaccine and a means of partial containment will be availability.
Should we be scared?
The most likely scenario is that less than 100 people
will contract virus H5N1.
There is a tiny chance that thousands or tens of thousands
will be affected.
Finally there is a very small probability
that millions of people could die.
Although unlikely, the latter has happened in the past
with certain diseases.
The most prominent example was the plague,
which struck Europe and Asia in the 14th century.
One can read about this extraordinary epidemic in
in The Bible According to Einstein's
Book of Catastrophes.
In short, there is no reason to panic at this point.
But the situation must be carefully monitored
and that is exactly what health officials are doing.