February 19, 2006

ATTAC Report This Week

Pushing the Flu Button

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Scientists have resurrected the virus from the deadliest flu epidemic on record, and they’re saying it could happen again. Is this an early warning, or a false alarm?

Hello. I’m your host, Boruch Ellison, and this is “ATTAC Report This Week” for February 19, 2006.

For many, influenza means a runny nose, fever, aches, and maybe a couple of days off from work. In a few cases, it can mean hospitalization, pneumonia, or even death. Still, the typical winter flu season is hardly more than a passing inconvenience.

Occasionally, a flu season strikes a little harder. Symptoms can be more severe, and the number of affected people rises.

By far, the most serious epidemic ever recorded struck 88 years ago. Before it disappeared, the 1918 “Spanish flu,” as it was called, swept through Europe and North America, plunging untold millions into illness. In a matter of months, 500,000 Americans died, and while much dispute exists regarding the worldwide totals, everyone does agree that millions died.

Just a few months ago, researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the Centers for Disease Control completed a ten-year project of genetically reconstructing the 1918 flu virus. Their purpose was to find out why that epidemic was so unusually deadly. But the scientists also punctuated their findings with a warning: They say that the 1918 virus is very similar to the “bird flu” virus now in the headlines — and that the newer bird flu could mutate to produce another epidemic just like that of 1918.

Those alarm bells, publicized heavily throughout the news media, are already fanning the flames of anxiety. Many people who normally don’t even get sick from the flu are taking the vaccine, and often developing flu-like symptoms shortly afterwards. Doctors are reporting a rise in healthy people stockpiling prescription drugs such as Tamiflu, which doesn’t even work too well and may produce dangerous side effects.

Pushing the “fear button” produces instant results — for the scientific researchers themselves. The extra media attention can push lawmakers into raising funding for federal research agencies like the ones that rebuilt the 1918 virus. New money means promotions, awards, even larger budgets for the scientists. Such political and financial benefits can also motivate researchers to distort their own findings. Scientists are human, subject to the temptations of power and money.

That raises an important question: Could the flu really become so universally devastating today?

Consider the statistics. In any typical year, the flu virus infects almost everyone in America. Millions experience symptoms — some mildly, others seriously enough to stay in bed. Of those, some 200,000 end up in the hospital, and 36,000 people die. As much as that might seem, it actually amounts to just a tiny fraction of the total population. Out of 300 million people, only one in every 8,000 dies of the flu.

What’s more, the majority of Americans don’t even notice they were infected; they don’t suffer any symptoms at all. So although a few people may become seriously ill, the average person has nothing to worry about.

What makes the difference between a person who suffers flu symptoms and his neighbor who doesn’t? They’re both infected with the identical virus, so it can’t have anything to do with the virus itself.

Medical scientists call this phenomenon “host resistance.” A healthy individual’s body easily fights off infection by any germ, whereas a person weakened by stress, drug use, or malnutrition doesn’t resist the virus as well.

Host resistance can fully explain the 1918 epidemic. That flu came near the end of the first World War, when all sides were becoming too exhausted to keep fighting. It was just months before the surrender of the Central Powers, and the war’s toll, in terms of destruction and human misery, had become overwhelming to soldiers and civilians alike. A special virus wasn’t needed to create that terrible flu epidemic.

That means that if released today, the same 1918 flu virus wouldn’t cause any special epidemic at all. The virus wasn’t any different from any other flu virus; it was the time, not the virus, that produced the epidemic. Some scientists acknowledge that the virus may not be particularly dangerous, and that the risks are overstated.

But will cooler heads prevail over fear?

Thank you for listening. From all of us at ATTAC Report, good-bye.