Monday, September 10, 2007

Books on Bird Flu: An Appraisal

At the moment I am doing a little research into infectious diseases. I have found three books with approximately the same title:

Everything You Need To Know About Bird Flu by John Farndon (2005)

John Farndon is a science writer and has a clear accessible style. He covers basic concepts succinctly. At just 125 small pages it is an excellent introduction to the topic.

Everything You Need To Know About Bird Flu & What You Can Do To Prepare For It by Jo Revill (2005)

Jo Revill is a journalist who writes for the Observer. This too is an interesting book - not so much for the basic science but for its study of the political reaction to the threat. It is written (unsurprisingly) in the 'investigative journalist' style - giving quite worrying statistics and predictions - and has a very useful glossary of terms at the back. It quotes from a wide variety of scientists with greatly differing opinions and its conclusion is that a flu pandemic is inevitable.

The book then goes on to give detailed practical advice on how to prepare a family of adults and children for when a serious flu contagion is at large: hands should be washed regularly, floors, door handles and surfaces should be frequently disinfected and coughs and sneezes should be directed into tissues which are then disposed of in bins which are themselves thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. A person with flu should not attempt to go to work or prepare food for others but should take to their bed - to be looked after by another family member at a distance.

Jo Revill also suggests accumulating a box of tinned and dried food, bottled water, disinfectant, tissues and basic medical supplies in case of enforced quarantine or if the social order temporarily breaks down.

This sort of thinking is condemned in the next book: Bird Flu: Everything You Need To Know About The Next Pandemic by Marc Siegel MD (2006). Dr Siegel is a medical practitioner in New York city and although he acknowledges that there is a small chance that there could be a devastating flu pandemic he is sceptical that there will actually be one. Just because bird flu (H5N1) is lethal and infectious in domesticated birds, he says, it does not mean it will be similarly lethal in humans. In order to become a virus that is easily transmitted from one human to another it will have to mutate - and that mutation could well cause the virus to become less malign.

He then points out that hoarding supplies of the drug Tamiflu (which if taken early enough can mitigate effects of current flu) is fairly useless since it not only has a limited shelf-life, but is highly likely to be ineffective against the mutated humanised form anyway.

He says that it is the various recent scares concerning SARS, anthrax, West Nile virus, and mad cow disease that are pandemic and it is this that kills. He cites various examples of patients who have come to his surgery in New York desperately worried about the recent 'germ du jour'. They demand vaccinations and drugs against a peril they are unlikely to ever encounter. It is a widespread paranoia: one of my mother's friends in Leicestershire nagged her doctor into providing her with a course of Tamiflu although she had no symptoms whatsoever. Anxiety is a killer; it is thought to increase the incidence of strokes, heart disease, depression and even cancer and it is this that should concern us the most. These pandemics exist around us now and we can do something about them by ensuring we have a healthy lifestyle and keeping things in proportion.

Our best strategy against flu he says would be to increase our capability of making effective vaccines quickly using new cell technology (instead of the current long-winded method of incubating chicken embryos), and having done that use our 'personal fear radar' against the infectious diseases that already kill veraciously - AIDS (3 million deaths world-wide), tuberculosis (2 million) and malaria (1 million).


Blogger Susanna said...

this is so facinating. I might also add that all week I have looking at your pictures from the last post. It is so picturesque. I think I can imagine growing up running around there. Although I have no idea about early grade school or things.

The flu thing is weird. I hate Mik eonce said to me that he thought if he had been a peasant in black pleague years he would have had the antibodies to fight it off. that cracks me up.

My mom always said you could go blind if you got into bird shit and seriously got it into your eye. Her mothers mother told mine and she told me so I will have to infom my readers. Also, tics cause lime disease, and rusty nails cause lock jaw.

Tue Sept 11, 07:57:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At risk of being a bit self-advertorial, Nature has a (free access) avian flu online publication called Nature Reports Avian Flu, which gathers together all the evidence, reports latest news, etc.
Might be interesting or even useful?

Tue Sept 11, 08:50:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

In Australia several years ago a horse trainer caught a mysterious disease from his horses and died from it. The horses died too.

Eventually the virus was found to have originated from fruit bats (flying foxes) who had somehow infected the horses who then transferred it to the human.

There is a short article about this incident here

Wed Sept 12, 07:24:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

S: I wonder if we all have black palgue antibodies since we are the descendants of survivors so maybe Mik is right.

Your mother is right about the bird shit too - it's really alkaline, I think, and really bad for your eyes. ..that stuff about tics and rusty nails is correct too, I believe. Mothers are always right - that's what I always tell Hodmandod Major and Minor, anyway.

Maxine: Thank you - it's an excellent site - and seems to support Jo Revill's case - worrying.

AnneS: That is so fascinating. I guess the horses were like the mixing pot as pigs are supposed to be for the two most recent pandemics of flu in 1959 and the seventies (not the 1918 one though - that is now thought to have come straight from birds. Thank you for telling me - I find that so interesting.

Wed Sept 12, 06:46:00 pm  

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