On November 1, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners held an avian flu readiness meeting to discuss North Carolina's plan to handle a pandemic. The list of prevention and protection activities includes a variety of monitoring and surveillance devices and states that no fewer than 12 epidemiologists are within state borders. Mecklenburg County is concerned. The state is concerned. The media is concerned. President Bush is concerned. But what level of terror should you be feeling in your heart -- a benign green or something a little more flushed?
The avian flu virus first crossed the chicken/human threshold in 2003 but hasn't increased its virility since then and is not considered an efficient disease. Nothing has changed in two years, except avian flu's continual spread in some chicken populations, which can be expected. What's different now is the attention avian flu has gotten from the major players, particularly from The One Who Leads the Free World.
Thus far, direct contact with an infected bird has been the only way humans have contracted the avian flu virus, mainly by handling infected chicken feces. But chicken owners: feces contact isn't the only way you can get the crazy chicken flu. You must resist all forms of chicken love, from swapping spit to becoming blood brothers with your favorite poultry. Domestic ducks are now showing signs of being silent carriers -- not harmed by the disease, but having the potential to pass it along to other species of birds. Although it hasn't been recommended yet, slaughtering any and all birds you come across is not a bad precaution. If other birds have the potential to spread it to other birds, who's to say they haven't already?
Killing all things with feathers might not be enough. Already, humans in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand have surfaced with the disease. That leaves Laos and Burma as possible Southeast Asian tourist destinations in case we decide to blow up the others. Nothing defeats a virus like gunpowder. Thankfully, humans have yet to contract the low pathogenic form of the virus which causes ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production.
Perhaps the avian flu virus is payback for the Spanish flu we unleashed on the world in 1918. Despite the name, the Spanish flu broke out in Camp Funston, Kansas. It reached Europe via American ships, and then got its name by killing eight million Spaniards in a month. An estimated 30 million people died worldwide, just over a half-million in the US.
In Charlotte, half the population was infected and 3 percent (or 1,200 people) died. At the local railroad station, coffins were stacked to the ceiling waiting for trains to take the bodies away. Dreary funeral processions marched down Trade Street every day. Children jumped rope in the streets singing:
I had a little bird,
Its name was enza.
I opened the window,
At the peak of the outbreak, the local board of commissioners, all wearing flu masks, held a meeting and decided to quarantine Charlotte between Oct. 4 and Oct. 15, 1918. A lot has changed since then. In response to that flu pandemic, one extra ambulance was loaned to the city. A director of the Mother Christian Science Church wrote, "The mind is the source of the contagion. The ailment can contaminate only as diseased images are paraded before excited imaginations." OK, so Christian Science hasn't changed much in 87 years, but regular science has.
Jennifer Morcone, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control, said that while there is some cause for concern, scientists are more knowledgeable and better equipped to handle an influenza outbreak today than in 1918 or 1957. "Many experts consider obesity to be the greatest threat to American health," she said.
Since the president and our other media buddies seem to be having such a good time scaring the public, the CL staff figured we'd join in on the fun. Here are 10 diseases we fully expect to become pandemics. No, really! And with so many possibilities, you will surely die from at least one of them. Soon, probably.*
-- Jared Neumark
Flesh Eating Bacteria
A Wilmington man who stopped to help another motorist was inadvertently lashed with a cable lying across the road after a passing truck ran over it. The wounds weren't fatal, but the flesh-eating bacteria he somehow contracted was, and it literally ate him alive.
A semi-drug-resistant strain of the common staph bacteria that causes most skin infections is popping up more frequently in hospitals and alarming doctors, but this one doesn't play around. It's capable of destroying large chunks of flesh within a week of infection and is often misdiagnosed. By the time doctors figure out what is going on, they often have to amputate limbs to stop its spread. The strain, which causes necrotizing fasciitis, once was extremely rare outside hospitals. But over a 14-month period last year, 14 people in Los Angeles contracted it, which means it is working its way into the general population, a fact that scares medical experts.