Monday, September 26, 2005
Addendum: Bird Flu
The threat to humanity is right next door
By MANGAI BALASEGARAM
I'M worried. Seriously worried. You see, people on the other side of the planet are in a panic. And I'm not talking about hurricanes but the bird flu. In Indonesia. But we Malaysians living next door have been told that there's nothing to worry about. And that is why I am worried.
Surely we should all be concerned when the disease is in a country that we have strong ties with? All these years, we haven’t been able to stop Indonesians hopping on boats to come here illegally, so what makes us think we’re protected from bird flu?
South-East Asia is the epicentre of the epidemic. The disease now seems to be endemic here – that is, it’s not going to disappear any time soon. Even if we don’t import Indonesian chickens, legally or otherwise, the virus can still find its way here through migratory wild birds, which have taken the virus to as far away as Siberia. This is not something we can afford to be relaxed about.
The issue at hand is not whether we can eat our chicken rice tomorrow. Certainly, bird flu is a lethal killer for chickens – more than 100 million were killed in Asia last year, at devastating costs to the industry.
No, the apocalyptic eventuality that keeps some health experts awake at night is a global human flu pandemic. This would make last year’s tsunami look like a storm in a teacup. Billions infected. Tens of millions dead. Mass panic. Mass chaos. Hospitals overloaded. Food stocks dwindling. The global economy in a wreck as trade drops. Communities closing doors to outsiders. The army taking over?. Get the picture?
This isn’t a Hollywood drama. This isn’t about Malaysia winning the World Cup. This is a real possibility.
Right now, this particular strain of the H5N1 virus rarely infects humans. But if it changes genetically to allow the virus to spread easily from person to person, then it will ignite a pandemic.
Nobody knows when and if that change will happen. But the stage is set. Flu viruses change all the time – that’s why we get flu again and again (new strains). And as long as bird flu continues uncontrolled, as long as humans keep getting directly infected by sick birds, then we can expect that change to eventually happen.
Besides, pandemics happen fairly frequently – whenever a strain emerges that humans have no immunity from. The last one was in China in 1968, when 750,000 people died. The big one was in 1918, when up to 50 million people died (some say even 100 million).
This current strain looks nasty. Roughly half the people infected have died. Given that we live in a very mobile, global world, it will spread rapidly. Remember SARS?
Governments are slowly realising that the most immediate threat to humanity is not Osama bin Laden or global warming but disease. Last week, even American President George Bush called for an “international partnership” to fight the disease.
Some countries are stockpiling anti-flu drugs. Britain is even looking for sites for mass mortuaries, according to press reports. But no country is prepared. A vaccine is not even ready.
Surely then, we should try to stop outbreaks happening in the first place here in Asia. Reduce infection and you reduce thechances for the virus to transform. A few months ago, an international meeting was held on this very issue right here in Kuala Lumpur. There was agreement that to stop bird flu, age-old farming practices need to be changed.
Why is bird flu so persistent in Asia and not elsewhere? Basically, because of the way we breed and kill chickens.
It is common to have farms in backyards, where humans, chickens and ducks (a natural host for the virus) all live closely together. Most chickens in Vietnam are reared in backyard farms. No wonder that the disease has been so severe there, with the most human infections.
Plus there’s a lot more poultry (and people) these days – in China, the poultry population has risen from 12 million in 1968 to 13 billion today.
Another Asian practice is slaughtering live birds in markets. Blood from an infected bird flowing freely is hazardous. Also, have you seen how the birds are kept? Chicken faeces – which carries the virus in infected birds – often goes uncleaned in cages and on the floor. How often do markets get cleaned?
Maybe a pandemic will never happen. But I don’t think we should just wait to find out. We should stay on high alert and, meanwhile, improve the way chickens are reared and killed. That’s something we should do anyway. But do you think the average Ah Pek slaughtering chicken in the market has any idea that he might start the next pandemic? I think not.