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The viral storm - the dawn of a new pandemic age

The viral storm

By Nathan Wolfe
Published by Allen Lane
Website: www.greenpenguin.co.uk
2011, 304pp, ISBN 978 1 84614 298 7 (Pb), £14.99

Smallpox, cholera, measles, influenza, rabies, hepatitis, HIV, Ebola, Nipa, birdflu and swineflu, some of the virus diseases that infect humans. It is no coincidence that the term 'virulent' embodies the capacity to infect and kill. All have made the species jump from animals to man, some when hominids became hunters and were infected by viruses in blood and meat, more when domestication brought close contact between man and his livestock. Now mass-market travel and globalisation have brought us to 'the dawn of a new pandemic age', as described so vividly by Nathan Wolfe in The viral storm.

It is a situation fraught with risk. The influenza pandemic of 1918 resulted in some 50 million deaths, more than all the soldiers who died in combat in all the wars of the 20th century, and equivalent to three per cent of the then human population. Yet that virus, though readily transmitted, had a fatality rate of perhaps only 2.5 per cent. In contrast, birdflu - H5N1 - has a fatality rate of 60 per cent. Fortunately, the bird flu virus has a poor transmission capacity, unlike swine flu which spreads readily but has a low fatality rate. However, Nathan Wolfe fears the viruses could mix: "When infected simultaneously with both these influenza viruses, a particular human or animal could become a potent mixing vessel, providing the perfect opportunity for the bugs to swap genes." The result would be a catastrophic global pandemic.

The viral storm is the author's attempt to answer three questions: How do pandemics start? Why are we now plagued with so many pandemics? What can we do to prevent pandemics in the future? The topic may appear to be more of concern to those working in medicine than in agriculture, but Dr Wolfe is concerned to raise what he refers to as 'viral literacy': "having an informed public that can understand and appropriately interpret information on pandemics." Such heightened awareness among agronomists, who travel and work in peri-urban and often remote rural areas, where humans and animals live in close contact, could provide an informed cadre of monitors to be alert to the work of Dr Wolfe and his team at Global Viral Forecasting (GVF).

The author writes fluently, humorously and compassionately, weaving facts with anecdote about viruses and the work of GVF colleagues, who collate and interpret data gathered by 'listening' for new viral activity in the remotest locations: "Just to get to this area requires a chartered flight on a small plane or a three week boat trip on tributaries of the Congo River that are only navigable in the rainy season. The research uses rugged off-road motorbikes, travelling for as long as ten hours to get to the site of a case." He describes the building of the very earliest roads, Polynesian navigation of the Pacific, the Wright Brothers' first successful flight, and how smallpox brought by European colonisation killed as many as 90 per cent of the Aztec, Maya and Inca peoples to demonstrate the intimate relationship between humans and viruses.

For the past century the main public health response to viral outbreaks has been to rush for vaccines and drugs and to encourage changes in behaviour to curtail the effects of the virus. "This was the response to HIV and it failed," writes Dr Wolfe. His aim and the priority for GVF are to develop an early warning system that can predict pandemics, providing time for swift action to stifle incipient threats. The viral storm is a timely warning for public and professionals to become better informed, alert and responsive.

Date published: March 2012

 

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